Compton, California (CNN)The stories that teenage brothers "Virgil" and "Phillip" tell about growing up in Compton, California, sound like war stories.
Lawsuit: Childhood trauma 'disables' students
Their battle begins when they step out of their door. Virgil says he doesn't walk around at night.
"I still be shaky about walking in the daytime, 'cause nowadays people don't care out here," he explains, adding that people are shooting during the day as well as at night.
He and his brother -- who didn't want their real names used because of what they've seen and experienced -- say they've witnessed the results of that violence in terrifying detail.
"I was coming home... and this Hispanic guy had an African-American guy on his knees and he just blew his head off," Virgil recounts about an incident he witnessed when he was only 5 or 6 years old.
He didn't tell anyone what he saw, not even his mother. He was terrified.
"I was throwing up for like three hours. My momma didn't know why I was throwing up, I just told her I was sick," he remembers.
A lawsuit has been filed on the brothers' behalf, along with three other students and three teachers, saying that repeated exposure to violence has affected all areas of their lives -- including their performance in school.
According to the suit, students who experience such trauma through violence, abuse or neglect should be classified as disabled and receive resources to help them in school.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit, which was filed earlier this year against the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) by Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, says the student plaintiffs and other class members "have experienced complex trauma." The effect of that trauma, the suit says, "limits major life activities... including 'learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, [and] communicating.'" The plaintiffs estimate that about 25% of the 22,000 students who go to school in the district have experienced at least two severe traumatic experiences.
"Because the student plaintiffs and the class members have experienced complex trauma, they meet the definition of 'individuals with disabilities'" within the Americans with Disabilities Act and are entitled to "meaningful access" to benefits, services, and programs provided by the school district, the suit charges.
"These children are, as a matter of brain science, not able to learn," lead attorney Marc Rosenbaum said. "They are unable to get access to equal opportunity and to fight for their right to be recognized in the same way as if they didn't have teachers or books in their classrooms."
The attorneys bringing the suit say the goal is to get CUSD to provide more resources for these students' education, including training counselors and teachers to recognize and deal with traumatized children appropriately.
The lawsuit cites studies showing trauma can effectively rewire a child's brain, making it hard for them to concentrate, memorize, or rationalize. It says the trauma also can cause students to overreact, have violent outbursts, or withdraw.
Those behaviors get affected children suspended and expelled from school more often than other students who don't suffer the effects of living with trauma, the lawsuit claims.
"There is a scientific case, there's a medical case to be made that children who are exposed to significant amounts of adverse childhood experiences are disabled," Dr. Robert Ross said. "It's a little different than soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, but the neurological mechanism is the same."
Ross is a trained pediatrician and the head of the California Endowment, a group that fights for affordable, quality health coverage for everyone. He is not named as an expert in the lawsuit, but he says the science behind the idea that children are impaired by trauma is hard to refute.
"If you compare brain tests or a (CT) scan of a brain of one- to two-year-olds -- one who has been exposed to a lot of trauma and abuse and neglect, to a normal child who receives a normal and caring home -- the brains actually look different," he explained.
Phillip and his brother recall several violent incidents when they were younger -- incidents that left them feeling helpless and vulnerable.
"I've seen somebody get shot. I seen somebody get dragged across the field and get hit in the head with the back of a shotgun and then dragged into somebody's house," Phillip says.
"There was group of people outside and nobody did nothing. Everybody just sat there and watched, the dude was just screaming out 'help, help,'" he adds, frustrated.
Armando Castro, a teacher in the district and one of the three teachers who are party to the lawsuit, says he sees the results of trauma-affected children in his classroom every single day. He's certain it's contributing to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
"These kids sometimes overreact to the smallest things. Or they keep their heads down and get real quiet. Then I know something is wrong," Castro said.
Micah Ali, the president of the CUSD school board, said the district agrees that the issue of children with trauma must be addressed by the district, the state and the entire country.
He also said he unequivocally "believes in the science" behind the lawsuit, but not with the methods Public Counsel is using "to get solutions for the students and families who are dealing with violence either at home or in the neighborhood."
The relief the lawsuit is asking for -- and the cost of defending the school district against it -- could cripple CUSD, which already struggles with funding, Ali said.
"It would decimate the school district and adversely impact people who the individuals have filed the lawsuit are asserting they would like to help," he added.
In fact, the lawsuit didn't originate with the students and teachers seeking court action. It was created by lawyers and experts who sought out people to join the suit, in an effort to bring attention and change to an issue they see as a public health and education crisis across the United States.
"These families are in need. These families are not interested in lawyers making a tremendous amount of money on the backs of poor black and brown people," Ali said.
But Castro says the lawsuit seemed to be the only way to get the district's attention on the issue.
The school district says it has already been working to help traumatized children by training teachers to recognize and deal with the problem, as well as offering extra services to the affected students.
Castro disagreed, saying the first time he received the training was after the lawsuit was filed. "We had not had that kind of training before the lawsuit appeared," he said.
Virgil and Phillip say they've been suspended for fighting and shuttled through three of Compton's high schools.
"Schools don't take mental problems into consideration and what someone's been through," Phillip says.
While the adults may agree with the science behind the lawsuit, helping students cope with trauma in school is clearly not a perfect science.
When asked if either one of the teens would consider talking to mental health counselors if they were available at school, both recoiled.
"I ain't gonna talk to nobody," Virgil said. "I'm not trusting no school."
The city of Compton, south of Los Angeles, has a murder rate five times the national average.
Now the city's school district is facing unprecedented legal action that may generate attention again because it could have far-reaching implications across the world of education, depending on the outcome.
As it stands now, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald decided that the case could not be given class-action status. He also ruled that just because a child experienced trauma does not automatically mean that they will suffer "from cognizable trauma-induced disabilities for purposes of the proposed class definition, and have been denied meaningful access to their education." However he did acknowledge that exposure to violence might cause impairment that could be considered a disability.
The judge also refused to force CUSD to provide additional mandatory trauma training to its teachers and the rest of the staff.
The case will continue for the moment, because it was not dismissed completely, as requested by the school district.
Some question whether the "disability" label would further injure the children it's supposed to help. Others ask, should schools be responsible for trying to help fix societal ills?
If it were up to Castro, the answer would be a simple "yes."
"If it's not going to be the school system, then who?" he wondered. "Because we spend as much time with the students as they do with their families."