Written By: Shawna Chen
A group of activists comprised of Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) parents protested on the sidewalk outside of Gunn at the start of the school year regarding a perceived lack of rights for Special Education students.
With signs that read “Teachers: Stop Bullying Our Children” and “No Discrimination,” the protestors lobbied at Gunn for a few days before relocating to the district office on Churchill Ave. According to Principal Katya Villalobos, the protest was not directed solely at Gunn but at the district as a whole.
When a student with a learning disability considers class selections, state policy dictates that his Special Ed. placement is decided by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and an IEP team consisting of the student, his case manager, his parents and a district or site representative. “The decision is not made by one person,” she said. “The whole team makes the decision together.”
According to protest organizer Marielena Gaona Mendoza,the protest was focused on placement, Special Ed. court cases and bullying. “[We want to] send
the district a message,” she said. Mendoza believes that many Special Ed. students feel unchallenged in class and with extra support, can be fully incorporated into mainstream lanes.
However, disagreement over placement, Mendoza said, has often led to families being taken to court. “[But] if parents don’t agree on placement, they shouldn’t be taken to court,” she said. “[The district] should [arrange to] make it work.” Mendoza added that many Special Ed. students, particularly those in PAUSD middle schools, felt uncomfortable in class because of how their teachers were treating them.
In response to the protest, superintendent Dr. Kevin Skelly released the district’s official statement, which read, “At the heart of this situation is the district’s belief that this child deserves appropriate educational support . . . Legally, the district does not have the ability to force children into special education without the consent of their parents. Further, in special education cases when parents do not agree with the services and placement, the district has a legal obligation to ensure that the student receives access to a free, appropriate public education.”
l Ed. services after intervention services evaluate whether he or she is in need of further provision. An IEP team referral process begins whenever the answer is yes. If the process confirms the need for a complete examination and the family gives consent, then the student undergoes a full assessment and meets with his IEP team over the course of a 60-day timeline to discuss areas of strength and deficit and organize a plan for the student if he qualifies for Special Ed. services. In addition, annual IEP updates ensure that services are assisting in progress. When any member of the IEP team, such as the student, a parent or a staff member, feels that the Special Ed. services are no longer needed, an IEP meeting can be called to reassess whether the student can be placed in regular lanes. A meeting can also be called at any time if supplementary supports are deemed necessary by any IEP team member.
Although Mendoza said that the protests took place in part to prevent families from being taken to court, according to Skelly, placement is never the center of any district-family court case and that other options are explored to resolve the conflict. “Generally, there’s some sort of third party that helps the district and family come to agreement,” he said. “The role of the mediator is to facilitate discussion and understanding and bring things to a conclusion.” However, a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is what the district strives for. “Most of [these cases] are solved through IEP meetings and communication between schools and family,” Gunn Special Ed. Instructional Supervisor Shivani Pulimamidi said. “Everyone wants what’s right for the student.”
In correspondence with reaching FAPE, Special Ed. services have been incorporating co-teaching. Co-taught classes consist of two instructors, one core subject teacher and one Special Ed. teacher, as well as a balance of regular lane and Special Ed. students. “We have moved into a full inclusion service delivery model,” Pulimamidi said. “That means the student [is] being educated in the least restrictive environment, as deemed appropriate by the IEP team [while we] provide as much support within that setting.” Skelly believes FAPE to be the district’s most important priority. “We work hard to achieve FAPE and with the vast majority of our [Special Ed.] families, this works very well,” he said. “We need to work for higher satisfaction among parents and students with their education, whether the student is in Special Ed. or not.”
Regardless of whether the district keeps in consideration the true purpose behind the protest, Mendoza hopes that it will bring to light the issues associated with bullying and discrimination against Special Ed. students. “Some of them were born like that [and] we don’t know why; some of them had accidents but it’s not their fault,” she said. “If at least you’re not their friend, don’t make fun of them.” As for teachers and school officials, she asks that they listen to Special Ed. students and treat every child with respect. “Usually, they don’t make things up,” she said. “Usually, if they tell you this is going on, it is going on. Investigate [and] –fix it before it gets out of hand. [Otherwise], it’s not fair to the family, the child or the school.”