Special Education a cruel war for Gilroy families

FOR THEIR KIDS From left, Lisa Ruiz and sons Michael Ruiz and Elijah Vasquez with Christopher and Lydia Fernandez. With the help of lawyers, the moms have battled the Gilroy Unified School District for years to secure the proper services for their boys' s

GILROY—A rosy picture of caring Gilroy school officials eager to assist handicapped kids just ain’t so, say two mothers who have spent years and thousands of dollars in legal fees to secure help they say is required by law but is like pulling teeth to get.

Lisa Ruiz and Lydia Fernandez describe a Gilroy Unified School District Special Education program plagued by long gaps in therapeutic services, slow response times, inadequate equipment, penny-pinching decisions, retaliation, unreturned phone calls and here-today-gone-tomorrow therapists and administrators—all of which undermines the help needed to prepare profoundly handicapped children for the future, they told the Dispatch.

And after years in the trenches of special education, they fear for those without the knowledge they have gained, particularly immigrants and non-English-speaking families.

“We are very assertive; if we aren’t able to get what our kids need, what about the other families?” Ruiz said Tuesday.

In an Oct. 2  Dispatch article about special education programs, GUSD director of student services Barbara Brown said, “What I would want parents to understand is schools are here to ensure students progress and excel and graduate from high school ready to go to college or whatever else they want to go.”

That was not what Ruiz and Fernandez experienced.

The district’s problems are systemic and force parents to spend more time fighting for than caring for their kids and ultimately drive some to lawyers for help, which cost district taxpayers plenty, they said.

David Tollner, whose San Jose law firm and its three lawyers work full-time representing parents on special education issues, said the problem in many districts is part of an unspoken policy on how to deal with such matters.

Districts don’t like spending money on special needs kids and prefer to spend on the general student population, he said, so when special ed parents seek services, districts stall and make up excuses, until someone gets an attorney and sues.

“They play the odds,” Tollner said, likening districts to bottom-line insurance companies. If they have to “pay through the nose” from time to time on a case, in the long run they save money by not meeting all the others parents’ demands, he said.

And for parents who fight back, Tollner said, retaliation “happens more regularly than districts would want to admit.

“If you are afraid to come forward or cannot afford to come forward or you don’t want to raise the ire of the school district, and that is probably 95 percent of parents, we can surmise [children] aren’t getting what they should be getting and what they need; we see it so often even with parents who can afford legal counsel,” Tollner said.

So what is wrong with the system?

“In most cases it comes down to money, Tollner said. Special ed funding comes out of the general fund and most districts do not want to spend money on special ed students, they see it as taking it away from what they can do for general education.”

Parents, unaware of their rights or that problems exist, “are told by the districts they are doing the best they can. Schools make a lot of excuses about why students do not progress and many parents are very trusting; in some cases, schools are doing their best, in many cases they are not doing their best,” said Tollner. In the past seven years, he has handled about 25 cases in Morgan Hill, several in Gilroy and one in Hollister.

Ruiz hired him twice.

Ruiz and Fernandez arrived at the complex world of special education along different routes.

Fernandez’ son was diagnosed with Autism at age 3. Over the next 10 years she would experience from the inside how a system designed to help her son was riddled with frustration, delays and bureaucracy that required constant vigilance on her part.

For Ruiz and her son Michael, one day changed their lives forever.

“On Dec. 6, 2011, Michael had a hemorrhagic stroke, then on Dec. 23 he had a craniology. They resected two ruptured blood vessels in his brain. I was plunged into this new world,” she said.

The following month, Gilroy school officials assured her that all the support she and Michael needed would be provided, including instructional tutoring and therapeutic help at home.

“That did not transpire,” Ruiz said of the promises.

Instead, she stepped onto a merry-go-round of meetings, Individual Education Plans, promises, disappointments and legal action to address even the most basic of Michael’s needs.

At one point, a computer he needed with special keys languished unused because it lacked software. At other times, a person who provided occupational therapy for Michael left the district and Ruiz was not told; Michael went for months without the therapy.

Fernandez experienced the same frustrations and, before long, both had steeped themselves in the law and became battle-scarred soldiers defending their children and others, speaking before large groups, creating a website and a Facebook page to get the word out and offer help to other parents.  

A system designed to help has been, for them and many others, they say, a war zone with the school district entrenched on one side and parents on the other.

In Gilroy, that program spends more than $17 million a year, roughly half from state and federal sources.

Ruiz and Fernandez wonder how much of that goes to legal fees and how much into fancy technology that ends up in regular classrooms but not in programs for special ed kids who could benefit most from assisted technology.

“These are the kids most in need and deserving of all of the necessary attention,” said Tollner. “If we really were thinking long term, we would put billions more in special education and we could turn the course of what happens to them as adults.”