There’s a saying in Spanish that goes, caras vemos, sentimientos no sabemos. In English it means, “We see faces, but we don’t know feelings.” I like to make people smile and help them, and I’m told that I seem like a really happy and positive person, but I’ve been through a lot.
When I was little, my mom struggled with drug abuse and often got into relationships with men who were abusive or drug addicts as well. When I was two or three, the man she was dating sexually abused me. This is one of my earliest memories.
When I was three years old, that same man hit the back of my head so hard that I had to go to the hospital to get stitches and staples. Later, I saw him beat my older brothers with a cut up water hose and then turn around to whip me with it.
When I was four years old, I saw him punch my mom in the stomach. She was pregnant with my little sister.
When I was five, I saw him beating up my brothers for trying to defend my sisters from him. This abuse had become so common in my life that I didn’t think much of stepping into danger in order to defend those I loved. I tried to jump in and stop the beating, but he threw me off. Scared for my sisters’ and brothers’ lives, I went to the phone and called 911.
My siblings and I were then placed into foster care. I spent a year or so hopping from foster home to foster home. I was scared. At five years old, I had already been witness to and a victim of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and I didn’t trust strangers. I didn’t like people yelling at me or even coming near me.
The next few years of my life were really unstable. My siblings and I went back to live with my mom a few times, but we were always removed from her care. My foster mom adopted me when I was eleven years old. I was happy to have a family, but because of the trauma I had experienced, I constantly acted out and got in trouble.
I was suspended and expelled from several Compton schools, without anyone trying to understand why I was acting the way I acted. The first time I remember getting expelled was in fourth grade. I got into a fight and was told to leave Clinton Elementary, a school in the Compton Unified School District. That same year, I was expelled from four other elementary schools in Compton. I tried not to fight, but I just felt so angry.
Violence is not uncommon in Compton. I can’t even tell you how many times I have seen shootings in my life. I have seen friends and family get shot or beaten up in the middle of the street. I have lost classmates to gang violence. Sometimes it felt like almost all of my classmates were on edge and angry or sad about something. Students often acted out because they felt this way, which frustrated the teachers and administrators. What many of the teachers didn’t understand is that many of their students walked to and from school full of fear of getting beat up or shot.
Last spring, I was kicked out of my house. With nowhere to go, I started sleeping on the roof of the cafeteria at Dominguez High School, where I was a student. After several months sleeping on the roof, I got in trouble and got suspended. I didn’t want to miss school because it was the most stable place I had to go to at the time, so I went back to class the next day. The principal saw me and threatened to call the police if I didn’t leave the campus. He knew I was sleeping on the roof, multiple administrators did, but they didn’t offer any help, they just told me to leave and threatened to have me arrested for trespassing.
It has taken me a long time to understand where my anger comes from, and I’m still working through it. What I’m constantly amazed by is that throughout my life, not many people have stopped to ask if I’m okay or if I need any help, even at school, where I spent most of my day. This needs to change.
My story is not that uncommon among youth in Compton, and schools should know this. I believe that schools should be a safe and welcoming place to all students, but especially for those who have experienced trauma. I know it’s late for me, but I hope that current and future students at the Compton Unified School District are able to go to schools that care about them and offer them the support they need to focus and do well in school. When I was homeless and could no longer sleep on the roof of the school, it was a teacher who took me in and showed me what it’s like for someone to help you out when you’re down. I wish all students felt that care and safety when they’re in school.
Last summer, I became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella, against the Compton Unified School District in order to create a trauma-sensitive district that supports its students and teachers. I am part of this lawsuit because I know what students are going through, I know they aren’t acting out because they are “bad kids,” and I know how meaningful it is when an adult provides you support and safety. I am part of this lawsuit because I love my home of Compton, but I know Compton can do better.
Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, et al. is a landmark, first-of-its kind class action complaint addressing a widespread, yet often ignored, public health crisis in America: the adverse impact of childhood trauma on learning. This case has been filed in Los Angeles federal district court by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP on behalf of a class of students and three teachers and demands that Compton Unified School District incorporate proven practices that address trauma—in the same way public schools have adapted and evolved in past decades to help students who experience physical or other barriers to learning. To learn more please visit Trauma and Learning, where you can read plaintiff and expert declarations, listen to our plaintiffs tell their story, and explore media coverage on the case. You can also learn more about trauma-sensitive practices in districts throughout California here.