Parents of Kids With Special Needs Blast the District at Final Independent Monitor Hearing

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About 40 parents expressed deep and ongoing concern over LAUSD’s handling of kids with special needs at Wednesday’s last hearing of the Office of the Independent Monitor, which is preparing its final report before shutting down at the end of this year. 

While the district has been touting the end of independent court oversight after 26 years as a sign of success, parents testified -- some with anger and others in tears -- about a myriad of ways that LAUSD continues to fail their children.

“I’m shocked to hear that LAUSD felt they have met the needs of special-needs students,” said South L.A. parent Mia Marano, who has a third-grade son with autism and still has difficulty navigating the system after six years of advocating, despite having the advantages of a college education.

“How can you say that LAUSD has succeeded in serving special-needs students even though the most advantaged by the system have difficulty getting their children’s needs met?” she asked. Meanwhile, more disadvantaged kids are often neglected. “How is that educational equity for all special-needs students?” 

The Chanda Smith Consent Decree settled a class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 by ordering an independent monitor to supervise the delivery of special education services. Its end means that the district has met the baseline federal legal requirements, but parents testified that mere compliance with the law is not good enough.

“Compliance in a piece of paper doesn’t mean quality education for our children,” said Lisa Mosko, Speak UP’s Director of Special Education Advocacy and a mother of two kids with learning differences. “I have spoken to over 100 parents in the district for the past year and a half, and I hear horror story after horror story...Clearly compliance, it’s not good enough for our children.”

Mosko addressed the lack of training and certifications of school personnel in charge of providing special education services, particularly in the general education setting.

The Independent Monitor, David Rostetter, responded to many parents who spoke at the hearing and directed them to agencies such as the Office of Civil Rights and the California Department of Education. “Exiting the consent decree doesn’t mean exiting compliance,” he said, but ensuring that teachers are trained to better serve special needs students is another matter.

“The responsibility now turns to the public to continue advocating for these children and act on their behalf,” he said.

Parent Ada Amaya, who also spoke at the hearing, said she’s very concerned for her son and other students with severe special needs. She made clear that parents like her just want the same thing that parents of typical students want for their children – access to the best education.

“Please listen to us and believe in our concerns,” Amaya said. “The special education system is not working, and it’s time to change it. Our children deserve better choices and better opportunities. Thanks for serving us all these years, but I'm sad this is ending.”

LAUSD serves more than 65,000 kids with disabilities, many of whom are placed in special classes, separated from their typical peers. It’s common for parents of students with special needs to have to hire lawyers to get their kids help. 

Parents file about 1,600 legal cases against the district every year over the services their kids with special needs are receiving. Last year, the district spent more than $1.9 million in legal fees and paid out nearly $11 million to cover parents’ legal fees for these cases, according to an LAUSD spokeswoman.

Despite spending $1.75 billion on special education (out of an $8 billion general fund budget), outcomes for kids with special needs remain abysmal. In the 2017-18 school year, only 8% of kids with disabilities met state standards in math, which was 4% lower than the state average for kids with disabilities, while 10% met standards in English, 5% lower than the state average.

“If this is ending, now what are we going to do? Where are we going to go? When will schools be doing their part?” asked parent Elsa Hernandez, while showing a collection of special education handbooks about parents' rights and other documents that she said were repeatedly “violated” by the district. 

“Why does the district ask us to be involved? Why do they keep sending us all these documents if they are just not going to comply?” Hernandez asked. “They are just not providing the services they are supposed to offer. My son is in fifth grade, and he’s reading kindergarten textbooks.”  

Carmen Belen, the mother of a student attending an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley, also questioned whether LAUSD is truly in compliance with the law. She alleged that her son was not receiving the services outlined in his Individualized Education Plan, which LAUSD is required by law to follow.

“The IEP documents state that my son began receiving services last November, but in reality, he started receiving his speech therapy in April,” Belen said. “They’re lying…This is my first year receiving these services, and now I hear this forum will be closed. I’m mad at the district for doing this.”  

Perla Esparza, the mother of a student at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School in Southeast L.A., said she is not blaming the school for not yet receiving a walker and the proper accommodations for her son, who has to use a wheelchair instead.

“Let me be clear, I’m not complaining about my school. They are not the problem,” she said. “It’s the district. I have been with the principal when the email was sent to the district requesting the services for my son, and to this day, we have not received them.”

Also speaking at the OIM hearing was Noel Scott, mother of a 5-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. She teaches special education to incarcerated kids and adults and recently wrote a blistering critique of programs she toured in her South L.A. community.

Scott called for more inclusive programs that integrate kids with special needs into classes with typical peers. She also blasted the district for a class she was offered at one school in South L.A. that she says went without a teacher or sub for an entire year. Instead, kids were supervised by aides and a parent volunteer.

 “What I have witnessed is nothing short of educational neglect,” she said. “My son’s zip code is determining his access to an equitable education, his access to inclusion….Our children cannot continue to be segregated in multi-grade classrooms.”

Mosko pointed out that the Consent Decree's requirements were actually based on a "very low bar" and prevented the possibility of other class-action lawsuits being filed. She hopes that the end of it will be an opportunity for the district to demonstrate that it can actually do a better job in serving kids with special needs. "My hope is that if any new class-action lawsuits do emerge, they will set a much higher bar for students with disabilities in LAUSD."

The independent monitor is expected to make one final report specifying ways that LAUSD still needs to improve before closing the office in December.

— Speak UP offers workshops to help families of kids with special needs learn their rights. For more information, contact lisa@speakupparents.org.