By Virginia Gaglianone
This article was originally published in Spanish by La Opinion and is being printed in English with the permission of the author.
Esmeralda Rivera started attending the Pacific Boulevard school in Huntington Park when she was 6 years old. But at the end of 5th grade, and despite the fact that the school goes from Kindergarten to 12th grade, the authorities told her she had to change schools.
Pacific Boulevard is a special education school, with facilities specially designed for children with medium and severe disabilities, such as a gym and play area adapted for the use of wheelchairs, large classrooms with bathrooms inside the classroom and beds where they change the children. Years ago, students up to 22 years of age, and with disabilities, could attend up to the 12th grade. But the center began a transitional phase, including other children from the general population to encourage integrated education, and began transferring graduates from 5th grade to other schools.
"My daughter has epilepsy and seizures," shared Aurelia Eraso, mother of 14 year old Esmeralda. "They already knew her at Pacific Boulevard and they had specialized personnel who knew how to act when there were any problems" she noted.
"When Esmeralda had a seizure at the new school [Los Angeles Academy], the teacher and the other kids got scared, they did not know how to act," the mother recalled.
After the incident, the teacher asked Eraso to leave the girl at home. Currently, Esmeralda no longer attends school and must homeschool her child.
Gabriel Casillas, 19 years old, lived a similar situation.
"My son has cerebral palsy and delay. "When he was three years old, the social workers recommended this school to me, I went to visit it and I liked it a lot," recalled Ada Amaya, Gabriel's mother.
But like Esmeralda, when Gabriel graduated from 5th grade, the authorities told him that he had to change schools. Amaya was able to fight the case of her son and Gabriel managed to continue studying at Pacific Boulevard.
At a hearing held last Thursday at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Pasadena, these and other similar stories were heard from parents of students with medium and severe disabilities who had to change their children from school, against their will.
Parents ask LAUSD to keep their children going to Pacific Boulevard, instead of moving them to other schools that are not adapted to their needs, and where the staff is not always trained to care for these children.
The LAUSD position is that special education laws and regulations, both at the state and federal levels, require the district to increase the time students with disabilities spend with their peers in the general population. According to a statement the district sent to La Opinion, educating students with disabilities in centers that are dedicated exclusively to special education reduces the opportunity for them to be educated with other children.
Although the mothers agreed that, in general, the integration of special education children with other children of the general population can be positive, they also emphasized that this type of inclusion does not apply to all cases.
"There are children with autism or Down syndrome, for example, who can learn and mature, but in cases of medium or severe disabilities, the children they try to integrate end up even more isolated," explained Perla Esparza, 13 year old Joshua's mother, and one of the few known cases of children with Pure Gen, a rare condition that affects their neuronal development.
Joshua, who has been at Pacific Boulevard since he was 3 years old, also had to change schools when he finished 5th grade.
"My son has the mental age of a child of months. At Pacific Boulevard, the other children played with him. There was an assistant who helped him, they read stories to them and included them in the festivals. But in the new school, he is no longer comfortable. They are left inside the room all day. In the end they are much more isolated."
The mothers shared their concerns with La Opinión, citing examples of children who could not go to the bathroom themselves and who the staff of the new school did not change diapers on time, leaving them dirty, and even mentioned a case in which a child had fallen when school staff was trying to lift him.
"What parents are looking for is freedom [to choose]," explained Lisa Mosko, Director of Special Education Projects at Speak Up Parents (http://speakupparents.org), an organization that seeks to give parents a greater voice in educational policy and decisions that affect the education of their children.
"Parents need to have options and be equal partners in the decisions of the school district," added Mosko, in an interview with La Opinion.
"Why can parents not choose what is best for our children?" Said Elizabeth Ruiz, mom of another Pacific Boulevard child. "Students in the general population can choose if they want to go to a magnet school or a charter school, why can not our children do it?"
"We know that change is difficult for families, and we have heard some parents who want their children to remain at Pacific Boulevard after the fifth grade," the school district acknowledged in a statement. "We are working to ensure that the needs of special education students at Pacific Boulevard are met in the new school. "Meanwhile, parents are still asking for permission to decide which school to send their children to. They also fear that eventually Pacific Boulevard will stop being a center for special education and become a school for the general population.
"Let the parents decide," said Patricia Perez, whose 13-year-old daughter Daniela had to leave Pacific Boulevard two years ago. "At Pacific Boulevard they were much more integrated. The staff of the new school is not trained, and it is the children who suffer the abuse. There is really a big difference between the two schools and the district is not taking responsibility," she added. "Our children need a center adapted to their special needs. We want to have options like Pacific Boulevard."