Fed agency to investigate Clovis Unified over student's health plan

The Fresno BeeJanuary 8, 2014 

A Clovis parent is embroiled in a dispute over whether her third-grade daughter who has a life-threatening metabolic disorder is being treated fairly by her teachers and school principal.

According to a complaint that parent Tiffany Gilchriest filed against Clovis Unified in November, Jefferson Elementary employees have routinely ignored 8-year-old Kadynce Gilchriest's health plan, which restricts certain foods from her classrooms and allows her to eat during tests and take frequent bathroom breaks.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating Clovis Unified for allegedly failing to follow the elementary schooler's mandatory special education plan that's intended to keep her healthy during the school day.

Gilchriest says Kadynce has been banned unfairly for months from school sports, pizza parties and other functions because of her medical conditions, which include serious metabolic problems, Celiac disease -- which results from eating foods with gluten -- several food allergies and seizures.

School officials have also repeatedly pressured her to transfer Kadynce into an independent home study program, Gilchriest said, despite advice from her daughter's doctors to keep her in school.

The complaint is directed toward the district and Jefferson Elementary's principal, Geoffrey Tiftick, who are both targeted in a second unrelated federal age discrimination investigation and lawsuit. Gilchriest hired the same attorney who is suing Clovis Unified in that case.

RELATED STORY: A Clovis teacher sues over alleged age discrimination

The attorney, Amanda Hebesha of Fresno, said the age discrimination case is still being investigated by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, Clovis Unified says the investigation is suspended, and EEOC officials did not return phone calls about the case.

According to a letter from the Office for Civil Rights, the agency will investigate the district for allegedly failing to appropriately educate Kadynce during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school year.

It will review evidence from both sides, and if it finds the district isn't complying with the law, it will try to find a resolution outside of court. The agency has the power to withhold federal funding from Clovis Unified or refer the case to the Department of Justice if agreement discussions stall.

Clovis Unified officials said the district has attempted to meet with Gilchriest on multiple occasions to try to resolve the issues. One part of the solution: Gilchriest successfully applied to transfer both her daughter and 10-year-old son Cody to another Clovis elementary school.

"We take our responsibility to meet the educational needs of all students very seriously," said district spokeswoman Kelly Avants. "We welcome the opportunity to prove ourselves to the Office for Civil Rights in that we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of our students."

Gilchriest said Kadynce's health plan, commonly called a 504 plan under civil rights law that protects disabled children, allows the youngster to learn and participate at school like any other student. Even though Kadynce's health conditions are severe, Gilchriest said she's a cheerleader on a club team and has a tightly knit group of friends.

"She comes home crying all the time, she hates herself and she wishes she wasn't different," Gilchriest said. "She should be able to do what every other child gets to do and school is one of those things. (Her school) should have to follow everything that needs to be done for her."

Gilchriest said the decision to file was spurred by months of wrangling with school and district administrators after she saw Kadynce's teachers allow gluten products -- which she is dangerously allergic to -- at class parties. In one case, she said, sugar cookies and other gluten-containing treats were put on Kadynce's desk without a plate, exposing her to an allergen if she touched the desk.

Her concerns escalated after the district temporarily banned Gilchriest from all Clovis Unified campuses.

Gilchriest said she was particularly concerned about the ban because she frequently picks up her daughter for doctor's appointments and needs access in case of an emergency. The district has since reinstated Gilchriest's right to visit Clovis schools.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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