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Parents Fight District’s School for Disabled

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Pasadena Unified School District sends students with behavioral disabilities to a campus where they are subjected to "dangerous physical restraints, inappropriate forced isolation," and threatened with arrest, four families claim in a class action.

The Doe families sued the district and its Superintendent Brian McDonald on Feb. 11 in Federal Court, on behalf of a putative class of students with "behavior-related disabilities."

"Pasadena USD sends students with these disabilities and only such students to a segregated school site, Focus Point Academy ('Focus Point'), where they are consigned to an inferior education, denied access to electives and extracurricular activities, isolated from their non-disabled peers, deprived of the benefits of normal socialization, and, in general, suffer the same harms as any other victims of segregation," the 31-page complaint states.

It continues: "Although Pasadena USD considers Focus Point a 'therapeutic setting,' it is far from being therapeutic. Placement at Focus Point is more likely to exacerbate a child's mental health condition than improve it. Academic expectations are low, and students make little academic progress there. Rather than fostering learning, the emphasis at Focus Point is on behavior control using drastic methods including dangerous physical restraints, inappropriate forced isolation, threatened and repeated arrests, and suspensions for minor offenses."

The parents claim that most of the kids sent to Focus Point do not need to be there, but could go to school with nondisabled students if the district had "school-based behavioral services" on those campuses. They claim the de facto segregation of disabled students violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires the district to modify its programs to accommodate disabled students and give them the same quality of education as nondisabled students.

"By warehousing students with behavior-related disabilities at Focus Point, defendants are violating both of the ADA's legal mandates," the complaint states.

Pasadena USD serves students in Pasadena, Sierra Madre and Altadena. It has 26 schools, including several elementary schools, a few middle schools and four high schools. Enrollment in the 2013-2014 school year was 19,102.

The district was the subject of the 2012 documentary film "Go Public," in which 50 camera crews followed people in 28 schools for a day to portray the positive and negative aspects of a moderate-sized public school system.

Focus Point enrolls students with behavior-related disabilities in first through twelfth grades. In the 2014-21015 school year it had 82 students, according to the complaint, which cites the school's enrollment logs.

The parents say the district could enroll their children at any of its campuses if it established a behavioral services program that could assess each student and determine the triggers for their behavior, create individual intervention plans for each student, train staff on how to implement the plans, and coordinate with service providers outside the school.

But the district says these services are available only at Focus Point and transfers students who need such services to that campus, according to the complaint.

The parents says that Focus Point lacks practically everything that students on other campuses enjoy, including ROTC, career training, swimming pools, sports fields, school dances, a library, art and auto shop classes, on-campus student clubs, school newspapers, school band, and the chance to attend an off-campus science camp on Catalina Island.

Being segregated from non-disabled students "diminishes their educational opportunity," denies them "the same opportunity to learn and graduate that is afforded their peers," and prevents them from developing "appropriate social skills," the parents say.

"Moreover, the students at Focus Point are stigmatized as a result of the unwarranted assumption that they are incapable or unworthy of attending their neighborhood schools with their non-disabled peers," the complaint states.

Focus Point is supposed to help integrate its students back into the regular schools, but most students sent there stay there for years, and those who do leave are often sent back because they are deprived of behavioral services and are not taught the skills they need to succeed on other campuses, the parents say.

Plaintiff Sam Doe is a 14-year-old ninth grader with attention deficit disorder who has attended Focus Point since he was in fifth grade. Though he wants to learn about computers and is interested in video game design, Focus Point does not have the facilities or technology. He acts out because he has lost hope of ever attending a different school, his parents say.

Plaintiff Deborah Doe is an 11-year-old sixth grader who started attending Focus Point in the third grade and is interested in dance, drama and sports. She suffered trauma at an early age, which impaired her ability to learn and interact appropriately with others, and has been in the foster care system since she was quite young. Though she was twice placed in a dual enrollment program, it did not work out because she did not receive the behavioral services she needs to control her aggression and ease her defiance, according to the complaint.

The other student plaintiffs have. Their parents say they say they are not alone in their struggles, which other students at Focus Point also endure.

Pasadena schools and offices were closed from Feb. 12 to Feb. 15 for the Presidents' Day holidays. Superintendent McDonald did not immediately return requests for comment sent Friday afternoon.

The students seek class certification, a declaration that the district is discriminating against them in violation of their civil rights under the ADA, and an injunction to require the district to offer behavior-related services at all neighborhood schools to enable the plaintiffs to attend them.

They are represented by Robert Stern with Morrison & Foerster and Candis Watson Bowles with Disability Rights California, who did not immediately return requests for comment.

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