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Pasadena sued over special education school

Standing desks are seen in a classroom at Vallecito Elementary School in San Rafael, Calif.
Standing desks are seen in a classroom at Vallecito Elementary School in San Rafael, Calif.

Disability rights advocates have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Pasadena Unified School District, alleging that the district is violating the rights of students with learning disabilities by segregating them into a special campus where they are subject to inappropriate and abusive discipline practices.

At issue is the school district’s Focus Point school, founded in 2009 for special education students with behavioral problems. The school enrolls 67 students from third to 12th grade.

The suit argues that the school provides an educational experience that is inferior to that offered at other Pasadena schools and that Focus Point's students are denied opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and electives such as the arts. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five current and former students at the school, who have disabilities including autism, attention deficit disorder, and emotional disturbances.

“Those disabilities are not indicative of their capacity to learn, they don’t have cognitive disabilities that will cause them to learn at a rate below grade level,” said Candis Bowles, a lawyer for Disability Rights California, the Sacramento-based group that bought the suit.

Bowles said a couple dozen current and former parents told her group that the school does not give students homework, and lessons aren’t tailored to the students’ grade levels.

Moreover, the suit accuses the school of relying on poorly trained staff, "who often resort to harsh and counterproductive responses, including physical restraints, unnecessary forced isolation, and inappropriate arrests and suspensions for minor offenses," according to the complaint. 

The suit claims that staff tried to control the behavior of one student, an 11-year-old referred to in the complaint as Tanya Doe, through excessive force and seclusion in what the suit calls "the boring room" and the district calls "the reflection room."

"In one instance, Tanya received a black eye while staff restrained her," the complaint says. "She feels that people at Focus Point do not listen to her. Tanya made almost no academic progress while at Focus Point."

Pasadena Unified officials defended the program.

“The district sees the program as being beneficial for those students who need the extra support in socialization and problem solving skills to be successful,” said Associate Superintendent Mercy Santoro.

She would not respond to the specific allegations in the lawsuit.

But Santoro broadly defended the school’s methods of addressing student behavior problems, including the use of the padded room she called the "reflection room." Santoro said staff put students in that room for up to 15 minutes after displaying aggressive behavior or showing signs of trying to commit suicide. 

The way schools educate special education children is mostly governed by federal law. Federal law allows but discourages segregated schools for these students.

“If you start grouping kids by behavioral disorders their behaviors tend to get worse rather than better,” said California State University Long Beach education professor Kristin Powers.

“We want heterogeneous grouping because the kids with behavioral difficulties can see models and interact with kids who have those social skills that they are still trying to develop,” she said.