"10 Clients, 10 Years" Photo Exhibit
Photos by David Hinden
On this 10 year anniversary of Learning Rights, we are proud to present 10 exemplary stories from among the thousands of students that we have served over the past decade. We hope you are inspired by reading our client success stories.
Hector was diagnosed with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy at the age of four. Duchenne’s is a recessive form of muscular dystrophy, which results in muscle degeneration. It is characterized by low endurance and muscle loss in children. By age ten, braces may be required to aid in walking but most patients are wheelchair dependent by age twelve. Hector uses a wheelchair to get around. School officials however mistook his physical disability for a lower cognitive level and Hector was placed in segregated special education classes since an early age.
As Hector’s illness progressed and as it became harder and harder for Hector to use his hands to write, school officials also failed to explore much needed assistive technology such as vocal recognition software to meet his educational needs. His grades were worsening and his mother’s pleas went ignored by the school officials.
After Learning Rights advocated on his behalf in 2006, when he was sixteen years old, Hector was placed in general education classes for the first time in his life – and he had no idea this was even a possibility! The law specifically states that schools have to educate a child in the "least restrictive environment” and his school failed to provide this very basic right to Hector.
Years later, Hector entered community college and ran for student body president. Although he did not win, his desire to be a contributing member of mainstream society is notable and enviable. Hector’s role model is Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is why we always call him "Hector for President." Hector is currently a student at Cerritos College and is applying to transfer to a four-year college – he is considering University of California Los Angeles or University of Southern California. He will graduate in May 2016.
Says Hector: “Because of Learning Rights, I was able to graduate from high school, get my education and, here I am today, at college. Without Learning Rights, I don’t think I would be where I am today.” Hector plans on going to law school and becoming a civil rights attorney. Maybe one day he’ll even run for President.
We first met Sabrina when she was twelve. She lived in a group home for foster youth and was attending an on-grounds non-public school for kids with emotional disabilities. Sabrina was afflicted with seizures and the school reported that Sabrina was out of control on a daily basis. Shortly after Learning Rights started advocating on Sabrina’s behalf, she got a formal assessment for the first time ever.
Although schools are required by law to conduct a formal assessment for each child placed in special education so that their special needs might be evaluated and the right types of services provided, Sabrina had never been assessed. After an independent educational evaluation was conducted, it was discovered that Sabrina had severe Dyslexia. The school had no idea what Sabrina's real needs were and, rather, they assumed she was emotionally disturbed. Learning Rights concluded the school staff was biased because Sabrina was a foster youth.
Through our advocacy, Sabrina was transferred to Frostig, an excellent school in the community for children with learning disabilities, where she was able to get an array of services she needed to thrive. From week one, the school reported what a sweet and lovely girl Sabrina was and how much of a pleasure it was to have her there.
Sabrina successfully graduated from Frostig and is a prime example of how any child with a disability, when supported by appropriate services and interventions, can thrive. Furthermore, Sabrina defies the typical tragedy that befall foster youth whereby they are presumed damaged as a result of early childhood trauma and are forced into highly restrictive and segregated schools for kids with emotional disturbance. These schools are frequently neither safe nor rehabilitative, and fail to identify the unique needs of each student.
Since graduating from Frostig, Sabrina, who is 22 years old now, went on to college and had completed more than two years’ worth of college credits. She is taking a break as she is expecting in December. She says that now she is creating "her own family." Although it was not her plan to get pregnant so young, she is happy that she was able to get pregnant because doctors told her it might not be possible given the long-term of use of a multitude of psychotropic meds. Sabrina had a seizure disorder for which she took a lot of medications, and on top of that, her group home over-medicated her with a range of psychotropic meds to wake her up, calm her or get her to sleep. When she was 18, she chose to stop taking all medications. She discovered she had outgrown her seizures.
Jessica is a parent in Learning Rights’ Beginning TIGER (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform). She has four children, including James, a son with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Jessica hails from the Native American tribe of Torres Martinez based in Commerce, and is employed as an Education Guidance Counselor at Torres Martinez Tribal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), a social services organization that provides assistance to Native American families.
Jessica was initially a client of TANF and eventually was hired as staff by the TANF program. She and another of her TANF colleagues have advocated to bring the Beginning TIGER training to Torres Martinez Tribal TANF so that Native American Families can also benefit, as there is quite a lot of stigma attached to disabilities in the Native American community.
Before Jessica joined the TIGER Program, she thought she knew everything she needed to know about her son’s educational needs and she would sign James’ IEP (Individual Education Plan) thinking he was getting what he needed. After a few sessions in the TIGER Program, however, she knew she had to reexamine her son’s IEP and realized she did not fully agree with what was planned. For example, she hadn’t noticed that the School District had taken away her son’s behavior sessions at school because they said he was not displaying behavioral concerns. Nor had she realized that James needed more hours of speech therapy.
Jessica tells us that she feels confident about the future, now that she is one of our TIGER parents. James loves music and she plans on enrolling him in piano lessons as soon as he is old enough. She tells us: “My four year old son, James, has a TIGER parent now and we TIGERs do not back down! The TIGER program is teaching me how to advocate for my son. It has opened my eyes and I will no longer sign my son’s IEP blind. He will not only get what the District wants to give him, he will get the help he needs to thrive. My child deserves an equal education; one that will prepare him for self-sufficiency and overall success. With mom by his side and a TIGER team behind her, my little James will be just fine!”
Isabella is a ten-year-old girl who uses crutches to walk due to Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is a group of permanent movement disorders that appear in early childhood. Signs and symptoms vary among people afflicted with the disease. Often problems include: poor coordination, weak muscles, trouble swallowing or speaking, and tremors, among others. When Isabella’s mother, Blanca, enrolled Isabella in school, the School District placed Isabella in special education classes, although Isabella had no learning or intellectual disabilities. The school predetermined that Isabella could not meet grade level standards or gain a high school diploma based on her physical disability and improperly placed her in special education classes, a restrictive program that pulled her out of general education.
While Isabella had a physical disability – she required an aide to move from one class to another - her mental capabilities were those of the children in general education. However, despite her mother’s pleas for Isabella to join her classmates in general education, the school refused. Finally, when Isabella was in second grade, her mother, having exhausted all other resources, contacted Learning Rights. By law, a school is supposed to place children in the “least restrictive environment” but it failed to do so with Isabella.
While Blanca participated in monthly TIGER training workshops (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform), our attorneys simultaneously helped get Isabella the services she needed, including a transfer to a general population school. Blanca now serves as one of the TIGER Community Group parent leaders and continues to inspire hundreds of other parents in the community to advocate on behalf of their children.
Isabella now thrives in her school. She has plans to go to college and dreams of being a fashion designer. She explains: “Now that I can finish high school, I can go to college and graduate. I want to show those who thought I could not, that I can succeed, and that I can support myself and my family one day.”
Keegan, Joey, Jacob,Ashley and Nathan
Kristy has five children: Keegan, 14, Joey, 11, Jacob, 9, Ashley, 9 and Nathan, 6. All five have either Autism Spectrum Disorders, Central Auditory Processing Disability, a Visual Processing Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder. Before finding and joining TIGER (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform), Kristy had trouble understanding what it was her children needed in order to succeed in school. She did not understand her children’s school assessments and how to use them to support her arguments or what her rights were.
Since Kristy joined Beginning TIGER in Watts in 2014, she has not ceased to amaze us with her passion for children’s education rights – after completing Intermediate TIGER, she petitioned with the TIGER staff to start the new Beginning TIGER training in Long Beach, which she also runs today. Kristy is a great example of how the TIGER Program not only encourages parents to learn how to advocate on behalf of their children, but also how the Program inspires and empowers its participants to create change in their communities.
Kristy also serves on her Community Advisory (CAC) Committee in Long Beach as Chair. CAC, mandated by the California Education Code, serves to maintain an ongoing interaction between educators and parents and to advise the district on the development of its Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). In addition, Kristy attends numerous trainings and special education conferences, including the Wrightslaw Training and Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
Says Kristy: “I know now how to communicate in a way that moves us toward a positive result for my kids. Advocating for my children is something that I can now do for myself rather than relying on the knowledge of others. I know how to find information and where to look for it. The School District isn’t in a position to take advantage of me anymore, and that’s empowering, and it feels good.
Helping other parents is something I enjoy and feel good about. Each parent that learns how to advocate is one more active member of the community that helps to change the tide for all of us. Our generation has the responsibility to carry on the work of those first families who pushed for education and equality for the disabled. We have a long way to go before that equality becomes a natural part of how education and our communities are designed. I'm really grateful for the TIGER classes.”
Robert and his wife Elvia have a five-year-old boy, Zhyez, who has Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, a condition characterized by intellectual disability and developmental delay, breathing problems, epilepsy, and distinctive facial features. Many affected individuals also exhibit features of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, which are characterized by impaired communication and socialization skills. Robert was inspired to join TIGER when he subbed-in once for his wife at her TIGER (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform) class. Robert is in Beginning TIGER and Elvia in Intermediate.
Due to his disability, Zhyez needs help while in school. His balance is unstable and he lacks self-danger awareness. In other words, if Zhyez does not get an aide in school who would watch over him, he can hurt himself. This also means that the school becomes a highly dangerous environment for a child with his disabilities. While the TIGER classes help Robert and Elvia understand that they have the right to demand an aide for their son, their School District keeps refusing this critical support. As a result, Elvia and Robert are currently also getting additional advocacy from a Learning Rights attorney.
Robert and Elvia plan to continue TIGER training and tell us: “We learned so much in TIGER. We ask, apply and execute. We decrease stress levels. We advocate for our child and we are prepared to do so. We become empowered to achieve a partnership with the district to help our child receive the services in hope that Zhyez can thrive to the fullest of his potential. The TIGER program is a blessing for any parent with a child with disabilities. We not only recommend this training but know it is a necessity to fully understand the magnitude of the challenges faced by children with special needs and how to get them the services they need and deserve.”
Zhyez is part of the Special Olympics Young Athletes Pasadena program at Professional Child Development Associates. The Young Athletes program is a free, year-round sports play program for children two to seven years old with cognitive and developmental challenges. Fun fact about Zhyez: if you want his attention, all you have to say is “bubbles” and you got him!
Zaughna has three children, Jamal-Malcolm, 18, Osiris, 2, and Zion, 12. Zion, her middle child, suffers from epilepsy, Klienfelter syndrome, global developmental delays, sickle cell anemia, multiple orthopedic disabilities and asthma. His disabilities impact his ability to participate in his school’s general education program and he needs special education services.
Zion is nonverbal and his communication skills are severely delayed; he is unable to use words to express his wants or needs. Further, his epilepsy seizures are triggered by additional stressors, such as extreme changes in his environment. He needs an adult to administer his seizure medication and to recognize and provide first aid during and after seizures. He needs assistance with feeding, mobility and toileting needs as well as an adult to push his wheelchair to access the campus.
Due to his disabilities, Zion was denied access to school in the Los Angeles Unified School District even though it was against the law to do so. Each and every time his mother, Zaughna, tried to enroll him, she was told that the school did not have a program for children in wheelchairs with disabilities. When she was able to enroll him, Zion would come home soiled and his academic progress was deteriorating. Eventually, Zaughna’s counselor at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles referred her to Learning Rights.
Learning Rights advocated on Zion’s behalf on numerous occasions and was able to obtain proper services, including access to classes. Zaughna explains: “I would absolutely achieve nothing for my Zion, had it not been for Learning Rights who became a power drill, knocking down walls to the services my boy needed to thrive!”
Zion loves listening to Beyoncé and watching Bollywood videos, as well as Japanese and Korean television shows.
Johnny and Desiree
Alicia is one of our first TIGER (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform) parents. She has two children; Johnny is now 23, and Desiree is 24. Johnny has severe developmental delays, spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and hydrocephalus. Desiree has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, asthma and allergies, and moderate to severe mental retardation. Both use a walker and wheelchair for mobility.
Alicia started advocating for Johnny and Desiree while they were very young. The parents made numerous requests to their School District that their children be moved into general education classes because they believed they would learn more and that the placement would allow Johnny to participate in and not just observe the general education class. The District refused, stating that no educational benefit could be demonstrated, and Johnny continued to be excluded from a “less restrictive environment.”
Alicia did not give up and continued to request additional support and services for Desiree and Johnny. The District continued to ignore their requests, telling the parents "the education provided to their children was the best." However, both children continued to show a number of signs that called for increased support such as poor endurance, impaired motor control, limited flexibility, impaired posture, and standing balance, among many others.
Desperate for her children to get better support and services, Alicia found out about the TIGER Program, where she learned about her children’s education rights. Alicia explains: “Once we received the training, I went to my children’s Individual Education Plan meetings more confident. The people in the School District noticed the change and stopped ignoring our requests and listened to our suggestions. We started working together as a team and developing plans to help our children achieve their goals. I made sure my children were treated with dignity and respect and made sure they got the needed support according to their needs and abilities. A big thank you to TIGER and the entire Learning Rights Team. You are the best!”
Janice and Christian
Connie works as an Administrative Assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District. A couple years ago, she started attending TIGER (Training Individuals for Grassroots Education Reform) trainings when she realized she did not know how to get the right types of education services for her children with special needs. Connie has three children: four-year-old twins - a boy and a girl - as well as a six-year-old boy. Janice has Down syndrome and Christian has Primordial Dwarfism.
Christian weighs just ten pounds as a-four-year-old, but wants to do everything his older brother does – if the brother wants to play soccer or jump onto and from the couch, he wants to do the same! Connie has trouble finding shoes for him; because he is so small, the only shoes that would fit him are those made for the newborns. Yet, Christian wants to kick his brother’s ball or run around, and infant’s shoes are not sturdy or safe enough for those activities.
Two months ago, Connie shared with Learning Rights her recent success in navigating through the School District system to get more services for her children. Connie gives credit to what she learned in her TIGER trainings. For instance, after rounds of meetings with the District officials, Connie was able to get a special car seat for Christian in which he can be strapped when he is riding the school bus to prevent him from slipping out of his seat.
Connie wants her children to go to college one day and become self-sufficient. She tells us that TIGER was an enormous help: “Things have shifted in many ways since I started attending TIGER. For example, I now know what terminology I should use when communicating the educational needs of my twins. I have applied the golden rule - document everything, if it is not written it was not said! I have gained the confidence to speak up for my children, to ask for clarification or for the policy or rule to be shown to me in writing. I am very grateful to Learning Rights Law Center for making TIGER available to parents like myself and providing childcare for my kids when I’m in class!”
Desiree was a 16-year old honors student attending Eastside High School in Lancaster, California, when we first advocated on her behalf in 2009. Since early childhood, Desiree has had Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease (CMT), a degenerative neurological disorder that affects her arms and legs and limits their strength. Over time, the nerves to the extremities degenerate, thus weakening the muscles in those areas, and physical activity as simple as standing or walking is often exhausting. Additionally, exposure to cold weather, like that of the Lancaster high desert, is dangerous to people with CMT because they are highly susceptible to hypothermia.
Because of her CMT, and because walking up and down stairs would have been too fatiguing and detrimental to her health, Desiree had to rely on the use of an elevator at school in order to get to her classes. The elevator that Desiree used opened from the outdoors and remained locked and inaccessible to students.
Desiree had to stand and wait outdoors in the mornings before classes, even in colder weather, for a security officer to open the elevator so that she could attend her honors classes on the second floor. Oftentimes, however, there was no security officer to open the elevator and even the teachers with keys were unable to open the elevator when she needed them to. As a result, Desiree was forced to stand and wait for extended periods of time - anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Desiree’s parents asked the school officials for a key to the elevator, however, their multiple pleas went unanswered.
Because she was forced to wait, Desiree was harassed by school personnel inquiring as to why she was not in class and was regularly late to classes. This constant tardiness caused Desiree to miss a significant amount of instruction in her classes, resulting in an “F” for the first grading period and forcing her to switch out of the class despite her academic abilities. After Desiree was left on the second floor without assistance during the entirety of a fire drill, she developed school anxiety and started to dislike school. When Learning Rights advocated on her behalf together with pro bono counsel Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the school officials were required to provide Desiree with her own key to the elevator, which enabled her to get to her classes on time. In addition, since she was no longer exposed to long periods of standing or cold weather, she experienced far less fatigue. All of this contributed to her well-being and greatly improved academic record.
Desiree now lives in Oakland (which is why David Hinden was unable to take her photo for this project) and she is on track to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in December. Desiree is studying to take the LSAT because she wants to be a lawyer and work in disability and education rights. While at Berkeley, she was the Co-President of Berkeley's disabled Student Union. Desiree still carries her elevator key to remind her of the struggles she went through and how far she’s come since then.