LAKE BALBOA -- Waving signs and chanting "Our kids, our choice," scores of Los Angeles Unified parents and teachers protested the looming transfer of hundreds of disabled students from special-education centers to traditional schools, as the district complies with laws to integrate students who have physical and developmental challenges.
The protesters oppose the merger of four special-education centers with nearby traditional schools, a move that will affect about 300 disabled youngsters when school starts next month. Opponents of the plan say the district will be segregating rather than integrating their kids by putting them in unsafe situations and setting them up for teasing or bullying. They say they want it to be their choice, not the district's, to transfer their kids to a traditional campus.
"They are celebrated at special-education centers for their abilities, not their inabilities," said Rhonda Berrios of West Hills, whose 19-year-old son, Michael, is profoundly autistic. "They have dances, and basketball and baseball teams and cheerleading squads ... The district wants to throw them into a one-size-fits-all environment, and that would be a travesty if this happens."
Michael is now enrolled at Leichman Special Education Center in Reseda, which under the district's plan will begin shifting high school students to traditional campuses in 2014. Berrios and others demonstrated for about 90 minutes in the sweltering heat on behalf of their children and those who might lose what they see as the advantages of a protected environment.
Tom Williamson of North Hills said his son Blair, who has Down syndrome, learned self-confidence and life skills during the years he spent at Leichman. Blair, now a 34-year-old actor, has credits that include roles on "CSI" and "Scrubs."
"He learned to go from classroom to classroom, and to the cafeteria," Williamson said. "He was given freedom and independence that he wouldn't have had at a general education campus."
The 100-or-so demonstrators targeted the office of school board member Tamar Galatzan, saying four of the district's 14 special-ed centers are located in her west San Fernando Valley district. Her office is also next door to the shuttered West Valley Special Ed Center, a building that now houses Daniel Pearl High. Protesters complained that Galatzan did nothing to block the closure of West Valley, although that was never a board decision.
Galatzan was working at her full-time job as a city prosecutor on Wednesday and was not at her LAUSD office, a spokeswoman said. Questions were referred to Sharyn Howell, executive director of LAUSD's Special Education Division, which serves about 83,000 students.Howell noted that the district is bound by federal and state law, as well as a federal consent decree, to mainstream more special-education students and give handicapped youngsters more opportunities to interact with kids at traditional campuses.
"We're talking about physical education, arts types of programs, computer labs and library time," she said. "This is a chance to get the students with their siblings, cousins and neighborhood kids at a general-education site."
They will continue to have classroom lessons that are appropriate for their level of learning, along with the aides, nurses, therapists and other supports they've had in the past, she added.
Los Angeles Unified spends nearly $1.5 billion annually on special-education programs, which have shifted over the years from stand-alone centers to mainstream classrooms. Beginning last year, preschoolers who might previously have been enrolled in special-ed centers started their education at a traditional school.Several demonstrators say they believe district officials are trying to whittle down the enrollment so they can eventually close all of the centers -- a move that Howell has previously denied.The district currently operates 14 special-ed centers, which last year served 2,190 students.
Under the plan set to take effect in August, Miller Special Ed Center in Reseda will transfer about 100 students to Cleveland High but will continue to provide its career-training program for ages 18-22.
About two dozen youngsters from Lull Special Education Center in Encino will enroll in Reseda High, the first step in transforming the facility to one for elementary students only. Next year, middle schoolers will go to Madison.Fifty kids at McBride School in Venice will go to Grand View Elementary, and Banneker School, near downtown L.A., will send 60 youngsters to Avalon Gardens.The Frances Blend School will merge with Van Ness Elementary in the Larchmont area, affecting about 40 blind and visually impaired students.
This story has been updated to correct the district's plan for Leichman Special Education Center.
@LADNschools on Twitter