LAUSD Takes Legal Action To Stop UTLA Strike From Harming Kids With Special Needs

Parents of kids with special needs who fear for their kids’ safety during a strike are cheering LAUSD’s decision to ask a federal judge to allow it to file a lawsuit to stop at least some members of UTLA from striking.

The complaint argues that a strike would harm LAUSD’s ability to meet federal and state laws requiring the district to educate and provide services to more than 60,000 kids with special needs.

“I think it’s really great, and I am supportive of a federal judge blocking this if it means supporting kids with special needs,” said Ada Amaya, mother of a 20-year-old son at Pacific Blvd. who has cerebral palsy and needs 24-hour supervision. Her son cannot feed himself or change his own diapers. “He’s completely dependent upon care. I’m very worried about this [strike]. I would like to see the teachers and the district come to an agreement and not have a strike.”

The move comes just as LAUSD and UTLA have agreed to sit down Monday to continue contract talks in an attempt to avert a strike that UTLA has threatened for Jan. 10 unless all its demands are met. While LAUSD made a new offer Dec. 28 in line with a neutral, state-appointed fact finder’s recommendations, UTLA rejected it, and Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference Thursday that a strike is “all but inevitable.”

Many UTLA members, including teachers, nurses, counselors, psychologists, as well as speech and occupational therapists, provide educational services to kids with special needs that are required by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Those legal requirements do not go away in the event of a strike. LAUSD students are also protected by a federal court order called a Modified Consent Decree.

“To protect more than 60,000 special-needs students, Los Angeles Unified is seeking approval to move forward with a complaint to prevent UTLA leadership and its members from engaging in a denial of services to special needs students during a strike,” said LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist about what may be an unprecedented legal move. “A strike would be detrimental to students with disabilities and their families, depriving the students of the special-education support and services they rely on each day.”

In a filing with the United States District Court, Central District of California,  LAUSD “seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against UTLA, enjoining UTLA, its officers, and representatives from causing, encouraging, condoning, or participating in any strike, slowdown, or other work stoppage by any UTLA bargaining unit member who provides educational services to LAUSD special education students.”

The injunction would be “limited to services being provided to students with disabilities,” because “students with disabilities [should] not be deprived of legally-mandated services” during a strike. However, it’s not clear whether the injunction would apply only to special education teachers or to any teacher who has kids with special needs in class – a far larger number.

Parent Perla Esparza has a son in 8th grade at Los Angeles Academy with PURA syndrome, which impacts his nervous system, brain and muscular system. She is very worried about the safety of her child and other kids with severe medical needs during the strike.

“They are not thinking about how this is going to be impacting the kids,” said Esparza, who plans to attend school with her son during a strike to make sure he’s safe. “I’m worried. My son needs to be at school, where he gets services. I know if there is a strike, my son will not have a nurse, will not have services. My son has seizures.”

Esparza, who has been pushing LAUSD to improve its treatment of parents and kids with special needs, is worried about all the kids whose parents cannot afford time off of work to make sure their children are safe. “I can be there for my son,” she said. “I can take the time, but there are a lot of single moms who cannot afford to go and be with their kids at school.” 

Parents Ada Amaya, Perla Esparza and Rosa Elena Andresen advocate for their kids with severe special needs at an LAUSD Board meeting

Parents Ada Amaya, Perla Esparza and Rosa Elena Andresen advocate for their kids with severe special needs at an LAUSD Board meeting

LAUSD echoed the same concerns in its press release announcing efforts to block certain UTLA members from striking. “In the event of a strike, these students’ health and safety would be in jeopardy,” LAUSD said in a press release.

Evelin Palomar has three kids with special needs, an 11-year-old with autism at Roy Romer middle school, a 3-year-old with autism at Victory Boulevard elementary and an 8-year-old with speech delays at New Horizons Charter Academy, where teachers will not be on strike. 

“My children don’t like changes,” said Palomar, who is most concerned about her oldest son, who is non-verbal. “It was so hard to transition from elementary to middle school. Now that he’s actually comfortable, he’s not going to have the consistency of having the same teachers [if there is a strike]. That puts a lot of stress on him. He has a hard time communicating his feelings. When he’s frustrated, he’ll throw himself on the floor.”

When parent Rosa Elena Andresen heard of LAUSD’s potential lawsuit, she was elated. “I like it,” she said. “They have to do something.”

Andresen, whose 20-year-old daughter at Pacific Blvd. has cerebral palsy and is missing her corpus callosum, said the threat of a strike was “scary” for moms of kids with severe medical needs. “They’re not going to have enough staff. I hear they’re going to use our special aides to watch [general education children], and our children are going to be neglected.” 

Andresen sees parallels between UTLA’s threats to strike unless all its demands are met and the government shutdown over funding for a border wall. “It’s exactly the same thing,” she said. “It almost feels like the union is another Donald Trump. I don’t think a strike is the solution.”

If a lawsuit prevents that, she and other parents of kids with special needs are all for it. “I am happy the district is doing this,” Amaya said. “They are putting kids with special needs first.”