By Eric Rossen

A lawsuit against Compton Unified School District (Calif.) will address whether youth experiencing complex trauma should qualify for special education services as students with a disability. The outcome of this lawsuit has the potential to shift how schools operate, particularly those in communities with high student exposure to stress and adversity.

Considering students with complex trauma as eligible for special education services offers potential benefits. It could increase awareness of the effect of stress and adversity on a child’s educational, behavioral, social and emotional outcomes, and prompt schools to engage in efforts to identify students at increased risk of trauma. We could see more dedicated investment in creating trauma-sensitive schools. And perhaps most importantly, it could compel schools to provide individualized supports and interventions to help those students most affected by trauma.

This move, however, could lead to unintended consequences. First, given that trauma refers to the individual effect of stressful or adverse experiences (difficult to measure) rather than measuring the occurrence of those adverse experiences (easier to measure), we’d see inconsistency in its identification from school to school. Similarly, due to low disclosure rates of adverse experiences from families and students, schools may be held accountable for misidentification despite not having relevant information to warrant further evaluation. With the potential for added stigma associated with special education, some families may be less likely to disclose, ultimately leading to kids not receiving the services and supports they need to learn and thrive.

Above all, most concerning is the implication that supporting students experiencing stress, adversity, and trauma is a special education issue rather than a general education issue. Consider the child whose parent was recently arrested at home in front of the child, incarcerated, and is preparing for the first visitation; or the child whose deployed parent recently returned home permanently disabled, or worse, killed in action; or the adolescent who witnessed a stabbing on the way home from school. All of these students present with potential barriers to learning, yet should not require identification as a student with a disability in order for them to receive support services in school. Special education is not designed to support the nearly 50% of students who have at least one childhood adverse experience, or the students who may be experiencing a temporary stressor and a developmentally appropriate response to that stressor.

The data are increasingly clear that many of our students regularly experience stress, and for many, this stress begins early in life. The degree of effect of those experiences ranges widely due to many factors. Suggesting that trauma-focused interventions are available only to those with severe trauma symptoms is a complete contradiction to best practices in supporting student learning. Instead, schools should embrace multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), an approach to supporting students that has trauma-sensitive schools embedded within its framework. This suggests implementation of a range of increasingly intensive services based on need; implementing policies that promote connectedness, supportive environments, positive discipline, and physical and psychological safety; and ensuring that the school positions itself to meet those needs with school-employed mental health professionals that help enable teachers to teach and students to learn.