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Trial set in LA disabled students' suit alleging community college blocked their education

West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, California, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
Susanica Tam for KPCC
West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, California, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.

West Los Angeles College and the Los Angeles Community College District are defendants in a trial set to start on Tuesday that alleges the college and the district blocked three students’ access to an education.

The lead plaintiff, Charles Guerra, is a 65-year-old Army veteran who suffered a major spinal injury nine years ago and depended on a campus shuttle service that was canceled last year.

“I lost the use of my left leg because my nerve had been severed. They had to do an operation to keep me from being paralyzed,” he said.

He went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane. To rebuild his life, he enrolled in a certificate program two years ago at West Los Angeles College, a campus built on hillsides in Culver City. A six-person tram shuttled him up and down the steep walkways.

According to court documents, the community college district last year sent notices to the campuses stating that administrators weren’t obligated to provide transportation to disabled students. Since West L.A. College canceled the service, Guerra has been walking.

“The road is not smooth, it’s ruts and juts, and it shakes my whole body. At the end of the day, I’m hurt,” he said.

Guerra’s lawsuit highlights a regional and national issue that observers say is critical to improving educational access for all college students: making campuses accessible for those with physical disabilities.

The suit claims campus officials violated state and federal law that compels public colleges to provide disabled students reasonable help. Guerra continues to take classes at the campus while two other student plaintiffs have reduced their class load, according to their lawyer.

“I don’t think it’s real access if every day that a student has to go to school, they have to be worried that they might fall, they might get horribly injured, that they may not be able to make it to class, that they’re focused so much on the path from their car to class that they can’t focus on the learning,” said Aaron Fischer, an attorney with the nonprofit Disability Rights California, which is representing the plaintiffs.

West L.A. College would not comment on the case. But a spokesman for the L.A. Community College District said administrators are working to support disabled students.

“[W]e want to make it clear that we are dedicated to ensuring that every one of our students at every one of our colleges has access to all of our classes, services, benefits and activities,” said L.A. Community College District Spokesman Yusef Robb in an emailed statement.

In their court filing, college administrators said the students who filed the lawsuit were given options to make it easier to get to classes after the shuttle was cancelled. Those options included guidance on easier paths to class and disabled student parking at lots near their classes.

West L.A. College said there are more than 100 physically disabled students taking classes on its campus this year. State officials estimate there are about 14,000 mobility and visually impaired students enrolled in California’s community college system.

The L.A. Community College District has faced a challenge like the Guerra lawsuit before.

About a decade ago, a federal judge ruled that the college district wasn’t doing enough to improve access for physically disabled students at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley after a wheelchair-bound student sued for better classroom facilities and improved pathways to buildings.

In 2008, the court ordered administrators to provide better access for disabled students by improving classrooms and running a day and evening shuttle service. Fischer said he’ll cite that order in the trial.

He also plans to point to encouragement from the California Community College Chancellor’s office to improve campus access for disabled students. The office issued a report last year that included a recommendation for campuses to use trams as one method to help disabled students with campus mobility.

“Specialized transportation around campus may be the best method of ensuring equal access on large campuses, or difficult terrain,” the report said.