Experts question if special ed is the answer to complex trauma

Experts question if special ed is the answer to complex trauma

(Calif.) Success of a novel court case out of Compton could extend services for students with disabilities to pupils from high-crime neighborhoods, but some experts question whether special education is the right venue for addressing the debilitating effects of living in poverty and exposure to violence.

The lawsuit against Compton Unified School District will test whether the symptoms of complex trauma qualify as a disability under federal law and whether school districts would then be required to provide special academic and mental health services.

Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists, said many children that might be suffering from complex trauma could be better off seeking help outside the realm of special education.

“Addressing trauma should be viewed as part of an approach to general education and how schools interact with their students, families and the community rather than something that rests squarely on the shoulders of special education,” Rossen said. “(The suit) is actually viewing (complex trauma) as a disability that can only be treated through intense instructional intervention, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that each qualified student receive an Individualized Education Plan. The IEP is created by a committee that includes the child’s parents, one of his or her regular education teachers, a special education teacher, an administrator and often a school psychologist as well. The plan is designed to meet the educational needs of that one child and often includes special accommodations to account for the student’s disability.

At issue in the court case is whether students exposed to inner city violence have a disability caused by trauma, and whether the symptoms meet certain criteria in one of the 14 categories under IDEA. Categories include autism, deafness and intellectual disabilities.

“Though ‘trauma’ itself is not a recognized category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for some students, the symptoms may be co-occurring with those signifying eligibility for services under a different category of disability, such as Emotional Disturbance or Other Health Impaired,” said Summer Dalessandro, an attorney at Lozano Smith, a California-based education law firm not involved in this case.

Complex trauma typically involves repeated exposure to extremely stressful situations such as being a victim of or witness to physical or sexual violence, witnessing violence in one’s neighborhood, or living in poverty without reliable housing or food sources.

Students may show signs similar to those of someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Lawrence Wissow, a professor of children’s mental health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in an interview. These can include a chronically heightened sense of awareness, or rapidly becoming defensive, irritable or sad in particular situations which don’t call for such reactions.

Studies show that students affected by complex trauma have difficulties with memory, attention, comprehension, and interpersonal relationships, as well as lower attendance rates, achievement, and academic engagement.

Although Rossen agrees that students suffering from the effects of complex trauma could potentially fall under the categories of Emotional Disturbance or Other Health Impaired, he said that the likelihood of the district’s ability to provide intense interventions effectively for so many students is low, especially given the limited resources of special education programs.

Rather, he suggests what these students need is “a supportive environment, an adult that can acknowledge and recognize what they’re going through, and a teacher who may not rely on punitive discipline when their behavior is potentially related to the experiences that they have outside of school.”

According to the lawsuit, the school district relied heavily on punitive measures such as suspensions or expulsions, and did not provide students accommodations to address their complex trauma.

One plaintiff, 17-year-old Peter P., said in the complaint that he was abused as a young boy and was shuffled through various foster homes. He witnessed his best friend in middle school being shot to death and has seen dozens of other people suffer the same fate. He was homeless this past spring and slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria, but was suspended and threatened with arrest for trespassing if he tried to return to the school, according to the lawsuit.

Despite having shown an ability to receive high grades, Peter said he has also been absent and failed classes because of depression and anger, and alleges that his schools in Compton never offered counseling support.

Public Counsel, the pro bono law firm representing the students, said in a statement that the lawsuit seeks a remedy centered on the adoption of proven models meant to help students and educators cope with trauma through:

  • Adequate mental health and counseling service for the highest need students;
  • Trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff;
  • Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions; and
  • Implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies that keep children in school and create a safe and welcoming environment.

Experts in childhood trauma believe that, regardless of whether trauma is handled in general education or special education, addressing its impact on students, and training teachers how to identify and support them, is incredibly important.

“I do believe that childhood trauma exposure and complex trauma should be addressed in schools - especially in those that serve high rates of children with complex trauma,” said Jason Lang, director of dissemination and implementation at the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut.

“It's a disservice to the teachers and educators serving these kids not to give them knowledge, skills and support for working from a trauma-informed perspective,” he said. “It's also an important part of taking care of the teachers and staff and preventing burnout and turnover.”

The case has not yet gone to trial.

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