LA Fights Disabled Students’ Claims of Discrimination in City Planning

LOS ANGELES (CN) – An attorney for Los Angeles said a lawsuit claiming the city blocked disabled students from commenting on a construction project near their school should be thrown out because it impedes developers’ rights.

Teachers and parents of Palms Elementary School students in West LA sued the city in 2017, claiming construction of mixed-use development next to the school playground would send toxic dust, noise and other contaminants into students’ classrooms.

Additionally, students in the school’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, many of whom wear sound amplifying listening devices, could be injured by loud noises, the teachers and parents say.

They also claim “backroom deals” between wealthy developers and LA officials allowed the project’s approval process to be rushed and insufficiently assessed for environmental and health risks.

Developer Hiro Kobayashi settled with parents and teachers in 2018, agreeing to install noise and pollution monitors and only initiate construction when students were on extended breaks from class.

But Olu K. Orange, the parents’ and teachers’ attorney whose two children attend Palms Elementary, filed an amended complaint saying pollution mitigation should be the standard for development projects near schools with populations of disabled students who face grave health risks.

“The city has a discriminatory policy and practice of refusing even to consider – much less make – reasonable and necessary modifications to its standard project approval processes, when such modifications are specifically requested by or on behalf of impacted people with disabilities,” Orange said in a court filing in June.

The city moved to dismiss the case, arguing neither its permit approval process – nor the “construction activities” of a private developer – are subject to review under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At a hearing on the motion Monday, LA’s attorney Kevin Gilbert of the firm Orbach Huff Suarez said current laws allow for disabled students to have “equal treatment, not preferential treatment” in city planning processes.

Gilbert said LA’s responsibility for reviewing development projects under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, is “robust” and that the ADA cannot supersede that review standard.

U.S District Judge John A. Kronstadt told Gilbert that plaintiffs draw a distinction in their complaint between the permit approval process and what they say is the lack of inclusion for disabled students in that process.

Gilbert said the amended complaint does not sufficiently state claims against the city’s process and that proper remedy under the ADA would be to have another hearing on the project’s approval.

Shawna Parks, an attorney for parents and teachers, told Kronstadt the proper remedy is for the city to change its policies as they relate to considering a project’s impact on disabled students.

Kronstadt took the motion under submission and did not indicate how he would rule.

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