“He says all the time, ‘Mom, I want to go to college, but I can’t read, I can’t write,” said one mother.
“She’s lost five years of education,” said another mom. “I feel like I failed her. I let them fail my daughter.”
Yet another mother recounted how her son’s increased stress at school led to him wetting the bed for the first time.
These mothers have children with special needs. All three of their children attended the Whittier City School District, which runs some of the city’s public elementary and middle schools.
Not only do they feel the district failed their children, they also contend the district’s negligence caused their students to regress, both academically and socially.
The trio is among more than a dozen parents of special needs children who agreed to extensive interviews with the Southern California News Group.
Their collection of documents and recordings of meetings with Whittier City officials show a pattern of both refusal and neglect to provide special needs students in the district with the support and education guaranteed them by law.
They also show a culture of retaliation in the district that led parents to believe the district was trying to silence their complaints.
As one parent, Jill Frieze Prado, said at a recent city council meeting, “distressing family narratives, spanning years and decades, pile up across our city.”
“In every corner of town,” Prado said, “there’s a family with a painful story to tell.”
‘I just got ignored’
Carol Ashley is one of those parents. She sent her second-grade son, Ryan, to Whittier City last year after moving from Pasadena.
Ryan has Down Syndrome, but it’s not severe. He’s verbal, mobile and “gets around just fine,” Ashley said.
Her problems began when she was notified the teaching aide assigned to Ryan wouldn’t be with him for the full school day.
When Ashley notified administrators that a full-time aide for Ryan was one part of an individualized plan — essentially a contract — for her child’s instruction, the discussion soon “turned into a very combative battle.”
Federal law mandates such plans be provided for special needs students.
Throughout his time at Whittier City, Ryan was bounced from teacher to teacher, aide to aide. The only constant was drastically low expectations, said his mother.
When he arrived in Whittier, he could read at a first-grade level and do basic addition and subtraction. But his new schoolwork was “preschool level stuff,” Ashley said. Reading assignments consisted of “‘I see a ball. I see a box.’”
It was “ridiculous stuff,” she said.
“My son, of course, shut down,” Ashley said. “He also got bored, because they kept giving him the same thing over and over and over.”
Ryan started throwing tantrums — cursing, screaming, throwing objects, running out of the room. His mother made note of all of this.
“He started throwing his shoes at the teacher, cursing, screaming, running out of the room, all of this stuff that he had never done before,” she said.
Each time she expressed her concerns, the district would agree to discuss Ryan’s issues at meetings months in the future.
Feeling the district was evading her, Ashley took Ryan out of Whittier City and transferred him to a school in the Tustin Unified School District. There, Ashley said Ryan has received more support.
“I felt like they were all truly there for the best interest of my son,” she said. “It was the same with Pasadena. … I never got that (in Whittier). I just got ignored.”
Ashley remains worried about the year of education her son lost.
“He’s getting better, but I feel like he’s very traumatized and not trusting,” she said. “He’s moving into third grade, and now I feel like he’s way behind. He didn’t make any progress in second grade. If anything, he’s regressed.”
A labyrinth to negotiate
Parents like Ashley seeing for the first time the ways school districts handle special education law often find out quickly how difficult a labyrinth the system can be to navigate.
Special education in the United States is governed mostly by an amalgam of laws that attempt to define what kind of education students have a right to receive, and how public schools are responsible for fulfilling that education.
At best, it’s a highly bureaucratic process defined by hundreds, possibly thousands, of court cases that still guarantees every student’s right to receive a good education.
At worst, it’s a process so overwhelming, in which the school district holds so much power, that parents fail to understand their rights and their children suffer from educators who either expect too much or too little of them for them to really learn, as many of the Whittier City parents allege.
The broadest law when it comes to mental, rather than physical, handicaps is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law defines 13 types of disabilities entitling students to certain protections and services.
Once a student is assessed and determined to have a disability, the school district must work with the parent to create a learning plan that makes sense for the student and their specific circumstances.
The plan is known as an “individualized education program” — the law state that the people determining the plan must include the parent, the child’s regular education teacher, the child’s special education teacher, a school district representative and someone who is qualified to interpret the child’s testing, as well as any other person that anyone on the team may deem appropriate.
The plan must specifically state the child’s disabilities and goals, while laying out a detailed process for achieving those goals. If the child does not make enough progress to achieve those goals, the district and parents must revise the plan to address that.
One important provision of IDEA is the concept of the “least restrictive environment,” meaning students have a right to an education that mirrors a mainstream education as closely as possible, while still allowing the student to make progress.
According to Heather Benton, a director for the Los Angeles-based Disability Rights Legal Center, this is important because surrounding students with grade-level peers can be just as important to their development as making sure their math or reading lessons make sense to them.
“The goal is to have (disabled) students educated with their non-disabled peers as much as possible,” Benton said.
Low expectations’ costs
Denise De La Riva’s son, Christian, was diagnosed in kindergarten with a speech delay. It took years working with a speech teacher to learn Christian also had autism.
De La Riva blamed herself for missing the signs — she feared she focused too much on Christian’s sister, Amber, who was diagnosed earlier with autism, as well as bipolar disorder, anxiety attacks and depression.
“She goes through so much that I was focused more on her than my son,” De La Riva said. “So I carried that guilt, thinking I never paid attention to him.”
Christian started off at Sorenson Elementary School. The district eventually moved him to Orange Grove, where Amber goes to school.
There, Christian plodded along under low expectations. De La Riva said her son excelled at math and science, but he struggles to read and write. Because his homework often does not require him to do so, Christian avoids reading at all.
De La Riva said she believes her son is ashamed of how difficult reading is for him. She said low expectations set for him give him no reason to try.
She said Christian often tells her he wants to go to college but is embarrassed at his reading level.
“‘I can’t read, I can’t write,’” De La Riva said Christian tells her. He “wants to do something in life,” she says, but “he doesn’t want it to be known that he has a hard time.”
Collaboration vs. conflict
Benton said Ashley and De La Riva’s experiences are not unusual. She said she sees many school districts simply fail to provide classes allowing disabled students to make meaningful progress.
She noted districts often run into legal trouble when they try assess a student’s disability on their own — something they’re not always very good at.
In one of its cases, Disability Rights Legal Center found the La Quinta-based Desert Sands Unified School District placed a 7-year-old girl in a classroom of deaf students without consent from her parents.
The student, who was diagnosed with a learning disability, was neither hard of hearing nor deaf. DRLC lawyers claim the district did nothing to address the student’s actual disability.
Benton said districts tend to value their own expertise above parents’ observations and concerns. But federal law dictates parents must be equal partners with teachers and district administrators in determining what’s best for their children.
“A math teacher might have different information about how a student is doing in algebra class, and mom and dad are going to have different information about how a student behaves when they come home from algebra class,” she said. She said that process of involving parents was “meant to try to make this whole scheme nonadversarial.” DRLC’s lawsuits against several school districts, however, show collaboration often doesn’t work out that way.
Benton said some parents from Whittier City expressed interest in enlisting the DRLC in their own cases, but she could not say whether the center had agreed to represent any of them.
Too many lawyers
Whittier City Superintendent Ron Carruth said he believes the district operates its programs for disabled students within the law, and that administrators and teachers are looking out for the students’ best interests.
He declined to comment on specific issues parents raised, but he said their concerns about special education are a natural response to an emotional issue.
“Sometimes, I think because we’re fighting for kids, we get myopic,” he said. “We want our way, and it’s the only way, and we convince ourselves, through reason and otherwise, that this is the way it should be.”
He said special education is particularly tricky for school districts because what parents want and what the law requires often don’t match up.
“What’s difficult in special education is that you have parents who are legitimately very worried about their kids. They want to do everything they can to be able to support those students,” he said. “On the other hand, you have the district trying to respond to federal law and state law and continually changing court decisions that set precedents of what services will be required or not required. There’s a real difficulty in trying to find the right balance.”
Ultimately, he said many of these complaints come down to parents who have a predetermined idea of what their child’s education should look like and “don’t want to be told anything else, other than what they want.”
“And if they don’t get it, they feel shut out,” Carruth said. “They don’t feel listened to.” He said special education as a whole is “far too adversarial.” His biggest wish is that federal law will change in a way that encourages parents and districts to work out these issues in a way that doesn’t involve lawyers.
Federal law “really needs to be reworked, I think, to allow the resolution of disputes to generally be done in the absence of attorneys,” he said. The law currently lays out a detailed process for resolving disputes, and it affords parents the right to bring an attorney to meetings at any point.
“I think it would be so much more beneficial for students, for school districts, and for parents” to try to resolve things without attorneys, Carruth said.
The parents say their frustration comes from complaints that go unheeded, as well as what they view as retaliation from the district.
Few of the parents with disabled children would go on the record about specific instances in which they felt retaliated against, but all agreed it was a problem.
Maria Vasquez and her husband have two children who attend Whittier City schools. Neither of their children is disabled, but they agreed to speak on the record about one incident they describe as retaliation.
In 2015, Vasquez and her husband struggled to schedule a meeting with their daughter’s fifth-grade teacher. It took weeks, but the teacher finally agreed after they went to the school’s principal, Lily Torres.
The meeting turned sour, ending in a heated argument after Vasquez’s husband accused the male teacher of agreeing to meet with them only because Torres encouraged it, and he considers her “pretty.”
A few days later, heard a knock at her front door. She opened it to find a uniformed police officer holding a piece of paper with a photo of her son on it.
Dread washed over her — she assumed something terrible had happened. But the officer was there to talk to her husband about what happened at the meeting.
The officer told Vazquez he was not at the family’s home on official business, that there would be no official report of his visit and that no one was pressing charges. He said he was there “as a favor” to his supervisor, Vasquez said.
The school district had taken what Vasquez’s husband said as an accusation of sexual harassment against the teacher. The officer was there to inform the family that the district wouldn’t tolerate any form of sexual harassment.
Vasquez later said she felt shaken by the use of a police officer for that type of communication, particularly because he came with a photo of her son.
“I felt that it was a threat,” she said in Spanish through a translator.
The teacher involved in the meeting did not respond to requests for comment. Torres declined comment.
Whittier City’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Raquel Gasporra said in an email “the district is committed to ensuring that all of its employees, from administrators to teachers, to school staff, engage in positive relationships with students’ parents or guardians.”
Capt. Mike Davis, who oversees the Whittier Police Department’s school resource officers, said he maintains a good relationship with school district administrator. He “gets calls from time to time” from the district to give him a heads up about events that might cause traffic problems, or to ask for legal advice.
Davis said the police department also responds when district officials believe parents are being threatening.
“Sometimes, they have a parent who is kind of getting out of hand, scaring other parents and staff,” Davis said. “So we’ll have an officer on patrol go out and take a report.” He said such calls come “very infrequently” and that officers won’t always take reports in those situations.
Overall, he said the department does not take sides or allow its relationship with the school district to influence how it treats parents.
“People have tried to use us to go after other people — not (in the school district), just in general,” Davis said. “We don’t play that way. We say, ‘Guys, we’re here to document what happened.’ We let the courts handle the rest.”
Carruth, the district’s superintendant, said the number of times the district has sent police to somebody’s house is “probably, in my 10 years, you can probably count on 10 fingers. So it’s very, very rare.”
He added, “I would never use police to intimidate a parent. That would be, completely, a misuse of responsibility, authority, anything.”
Carruth also said district leaders prioritize responding to parents. He said all communication is answered within a day.
“We always try really hard to resolve things and be responsive to people and always be fair,” he said. “Our job is, bottom line, always to do what’s right, and that’s what we focus on doing — listening and caring, but I do know on occasion some people are not real pleased with that.”
Alleged union retaliation
Other forms of retaliation reported by parents were less direct but still had a chilling effect. Special education parents shared that they believed teachers talked about them behind their backs. In some cases, legal settlements with the district prevented them from going on the record.
Another parent in the district, Rolando Cano, spoke at a January 2015 school board meeting after he and friend Vasquez observed what they believed was verbal abuse by some Whittier City teachers. They reported seeing teachers yelling and intimidating students at Longfellow Elementary School.
Two days later, unbeknownst to either Vasquez or Cano, union leaders criticized the pair, according to the minutes of that meeting. The union’s second vice president, Marjean Rosen, who is now the teachers union president, said in an official report to the other union leaders that Vasquez and Cano’s comments to the school board were “mean and hurtful,” and that the two were known to be “unstable and untrue.”
The minutes showed that Rosen said both she and Carruth believed the two had “a history of being unbalanced.” She urged teachers to ask parents to come to school board meetings to speak positively about teachers at Longfellow.
When asked about Rosen’s comments about Luna-Valenzuela and Cano, Carruth said he spoke to teachers at a union meeting to discuss how to manage inappropriate behavior by parents, but did not discuss any parents by name.
Rosen did not respond to requests for comment.
After that meeting, both Vasquez and Cano noticed a change in how they were treated by teachers and other parents in the district.
Cano said other parents started avoiding him. He said his daughter’s teacher — the same with whom Vasquez’s husband had argued — told him, “If you’re against the teachers, you’re my enemy.”
Later, a teacher pulled him aside and told him to look at the minutes from the union meeting. That’s when he understood why he was being ostracized.
Cano said union members knew he was going to apply for a position in the district. He called Rosen’s comments a public attempt to discredit him for exercising his legal right to bring concerns to the school board.
Cano said he was frustrated the union aired criticism of him in front of teachers who could soon be his coworkers.
“You guys had a meeting,” he said. “You didn’t talk about it behind closed doors. You didn’t talk about it in a small group. You were talking about it in a group of people who would be my peers in a union in every school in this district.”
Parents continue fight
These parents, and others, separately struggled for years to get what they believed was a proper education for their children. Now that they know they share similar experiences with the district, they’re starting to band together.
At a district workshop in May focused on special education, frustrated parents derailed special education director Frances Stearns’s presentation. The parents bombarded her with questions and concerns.
In the middle of the tumult, one parent explained why the parents were so disgruntled.
“We never get to tell each other anything,” the parent said. “And there’s more of us. There’s just so many frustrated parents that they won’t even come to the meetings.”
Many of the parents who spoke to this publication have met with lawyers and advocacy groups, including the Disability Rights Legal Center. They said filing a lawsuit against the district was a possibility, but they hope they can help fix the district’s problems first.
Jill Frieze Prado is another parent of a special-needs student who has battled the district for years. She’s met with Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri and pleaded to the school board and City Council to raise awareness for the parents.
At a recent council meeting, she explained why special-needs parents feel like changing a district with immense resources and little accountability can be an impossible task.
“The school system has at its disposal robust financial, administrative and legal assets from city, county, state and federal resources,” she said. “Parents have none.”