Local Student with Disability Denied Access
to School Building because of District’s Policy;
Learning Rights Law Center Supports ProBono Work
February 18, 2011: This week, KCBS-TV Los Angeles ran a story featuring Desiree, a student with a hereditary degenerative physical disability. Desiree shares this condition with her sibling and her mother. The condition makes walking difficult for Desiree, and walking up stairs is especially problematic. The two-story school building offered a solution – Desiree and her sibling could use the elevator. Unfortunately, the compassion stopped before the elevator could reach Desiree.
Learning Rights Law Center placed Desiree’s case with the private Los Angeles law firm of Manatt, after her family reached out to Learning Rights. Desiree and her sibling were denied the solution: The school district refused to give them an elevator key therefore denying them access to the new two story Lancaster high school. Desiree was an honor student whose academic performance significantly declined because of the disability discrimination.
Instead of simply giving her a key, the school district required Desiree to flag down certain adults to give her elevator access on an as-needed basis. This resulted in Desiree being late to class daily and even missing entire periods of instruction. On one occasion, school staff even failed to account for Desiree’s disability during a fire drill and Desiree spent the entire duration of the exercise stranded on the second floor with no way to safely get downstairs.
Learning Rights is proud of the fine pro bono work done by Manatt and their attorneys Jessica Shpall and Edward Burg. Manatt filed a lawsuit in federal court after attempts to informally resolve the issue went nowhere.
Janeen Steel, the Executive Director of Learning Rights comments: “It is sad that attorneys had to file a lawsuit to simply get a student with a physical disability an elevator key. This family was lucky that we were able to find generous pro bono lawyers to help them. I worry for the thousands of Los Angeles students with disabilities who face daily discrimination that we haven’t yet been able to assist.” The federal court judge in this case was sufficiently outraged at the school district that he berated their behavior on the record.
In a related case, Learning Rights filed a due process complaint with the California Office of Administrative Hearings on behalf of Desiree’s sibling. This is the first ever-special education due process case that Learning Rights has had to appeal to federal court. “We want school districts to remember they have a legal duty to ensure that students with special needs properly access the public school system,” says Steel. “And if they don’t, or if administrative hearing officers don’t properly apply the law, they should know that there are many attorneys willing to defend those civil rights in federal court.” Apparently there are also federal court judges willing to listen.
Thanks to the hard work of Manatt, as pro bono counsel to Desiree, this honors student got her elevator key, and now the school district will conduct disability sensitivity training.
Learning Rights Law Center’s goal is to ensure students have equitable access to the public education system. To further this mission Learning Rights is focusing its efforts on low-income students in the K-12 system. For example, Learning Rights focuses on helping the following: students at risk of being involved in, or already involved in, the child welfare and/or juvenile justice systems; students with learning disabilities and/or learning difficulties; and, students not accessing the public school system because of language, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness or inadequate facilities.
LRLC Executive Director Janeen Steel responds to LAUSD’s Comments in June 3, 2010 LA Times Article:
The Los Angeles Times article “Disabled students losing 200 classes” by Howard Blume on Thursday, June 3, 2010 was troubling. As the Executive Director of Learning Rights Law Center, I was shocked at the overt discriminatory statements made by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent Ramone C. Cortines, “You have to look at it in perspective, when you fund some of the special ed things, you’re taking from regular kids.” Over the past 10 years, I have been representing low-income students with disabilities throughout Los Angeles and have seen the disparity in treatment and discrimination first hand.
Cortines makes clear that there are two separate and very different classes of students at LAUSD, “regular kids” and special needs students. Are children with special needs abnormal? It is estimated that 10% of the population has a disability. School funding is not an us versus them scenario – all children must be treated equally regardless of disability, race, or class. Disabilities must be accommodated and that is just a normal part of doing business as a school, not an exceptional burden.
Cortines’ outdated paradigm of disability as “other” harkens back to the troubling racial beliefs of the late 1800s. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Plessy v. Ferguson that “[i]f one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Would Cortines have us return to the politics of 1896? Thankfully, enlightenment came 60 years later in Brown et.al. v. Board of Education which overruled Plessy and held that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” for it is “inherently unequal.”
Our ideas about differences among people fortunately have changed drastically since then, as has our perception of the place of law in our society. We now expect that our leaders and laws will work to eliminate discrimination and inequality in our society. Our current laws state that “[d]isability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
Funding has always been used as an excuse for discrimination. Segregationists used funding as an excuse to oppose and delay the integration of African American children in public schools and, while this is no longer a politically correct position to take with regard to race, apparently LAUSD believes it remains an acceptable position towards children with disabilities.
In 1972 Mills v Board of Education of the District of Columbia et. alspearheaded the federal protections for children with disabilities. The court stated regarding the funding: “If sufficient funds are not available to finance all of the services and programs that are needed and desirable in the system then the available funds must be expended equitably in such a manner that no child is entirely excluded from a publicly supported education consistent with his needs and ability to benefit therefrom. The inadequacies of the…Public School System whether occasioned by insufficient funding or administrative inefficiency, certainly cannot be permitted to bear more heavily on the ‘exceptional’ or handicapped child.”
We must not tolerate the discriminatory actions of the people charged to educate the students in the public school system. Let’s not erase the good that took over a century to accomplish.