Fresno Unified broke rules governing special-needs student, judge says

The Fresno BeeJanuary 27, 2014 

Alice de Alba-Uribe, right, and her daughter, Krista Uribe in a 2012 photo

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Fresno Unified School District officials broke federal education rules when they kept a special needs student from getting fair schooling since 2010, a judge has ruled, handing a victory to the student's family after a hard-fought and years-long legal battle.

Administrative Law Judge Margaret Broussard ruled last week that 22-year-old Krista Uribe, who was left intellectually impaired after severe seizures as a toddler, will now be assessed for an adult education program. Because she's now too old for traditional public school, the program would help compensate for services she was never given as a child.

The program would be paid through public dollars, the 47-page ruling says.

"It feels like we are closing a chapter," said Uribe's mother, Alice de Alba-Uribe. "We've been fighting for so many years, and it wasn't anything that was above and beyond, it was simply what she was legally entitled to."

The case, first reported in a Bee story in June 2012, looked at whether Fresno Unified carried out a fair "individual education plan" -- a federally required learning plan for disabled students -- during Uribe's high school years. The plan was also supposed to help Uribe, who was approaching adulthood at the time, transition into the next phase of her life.

District officials argued they were excused from following the plan, court documents show.

They said drafting a plan was reliant upon Uribe getting an updated psychological assessment, which a judge mandated in a separate 2012 ruling. De Alba-Uribe didn't bring her daughter in to the doctor, district officials said, which prevented them from complying.

In her strongly worded opinion, Broussard dismissed the district's explanation, noting staff pressured the Uribe family to use a district-picked psychologist against their will. De Alba-Uribe said a request to use a different doctor listed on the district's pre-approved list was rejected.

"Nothing in the (2012) order said that the parties could not work together ... and the district staff's view that (the) district could not choose an assessor on the list that (de Alba-Uribe) preferred flies in the face of logic and is not reasonable," Broussard's decision reads.

The judge also said the district violated federal laws when it tried to place Uribe in an adult program without her mother's permission. De Alba-Uribe said the district pressured her to switch her daughter from Duncan Polytechnical High School to another alternative school without first considering Uribe's best interests.

The family ultimately prevailed on all but one of the seven issues the judge weighed.

Sang-Jin Nam, a private attorney hired to defend the district, declined to comment on the decision.

In an email, district spokeswoman Susan Bedi said, "Fresno Unified is committed to the safety and well-being of all of our students. Due to student privacy issues the district cannot comment on this case at this time."

Thursday's win is the third for the family, which has for years argued Uribe was unfairly disenrolled from Duncan and prevented from getting basic special education services at school.

Since she started at Duncan in 2007, court documents show, Uribe was known as a well-mannered student who excelled in classes such as art and small animal management. But documents show district officials repeatedly tried to remove her from Duncan. In 2009, a judge from the Office of Administrative Hearings -- the state agency that rules on special education disputes -- said Uribe would stay at Duncan.

In a separate 2012 ruling, another OAH judge ruled in Uribe's favor, squashing the district's attempt to remove Uribe from Duncan again. The judge also said staff prevented de Alba-Uribe from participating in her daughter's schooling.

A related federal civil suit filed by the district against Uribe is ongoing. In that case, the district is seeking relief from the 2012 OAH decision and to recoup attorney's fees spent on the federal case.

Prudence Hutton, a Fresno attorney who focuses on special education issues , called the decision a "wake-up call" for both school administrators and parents.

She said it proves Fresno Unified doesn't have adequate transition programs for special needs students. It also shows the district is unwilling to sort out disputes at the lowest possible level, she said.

"Most special education cases need to be resolved early," she said. "It's so appalling to me this went on, and took so much time of the court and the state's time. It really just sickens me."

Sandra Hammond, consultant at education advocacy group Education Perspectives for the Central Valley, said Uribe's string of wins sets a precedent for future special education cases.

But years of legal wrangling have taken a toll on the family's financial welfare, said Hammond, who volunteered to help de Alba-Uribe prepare legal briefs. De Alba-Uribe said she lost "thousands" of dollars in wages while she took off time from work to prepare her case. The mother of four hired -- and then lost -- two attorneys because she couldn't afford the fees.

"These (school district) attorneys seek to wear parents down in time and money," Hammond said. "They have continually tried to gag Alice's case in every corner, and they weren't able to this time."

A request from The Bee for district receipts showing how much it spent on Uribe's cases was not fulfilled. Overall, Fresno Unified documents show the district spent $872,763 on special education litigation last school year, or 41% of the $2.1 million paid in legal expenses that year.

Fresno Unified's total budget this year is $646 million.

The practice of spending thousands of dollars to fight parents is one Joe Bowling says has become commonplace at Fresno Unified.

Bowling is the executive director at the regional board for the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, an independent state agency that helps connect disabled individuals and their families with support services.

Bowling said Fresno Unified was "slammed on almost everything" in Broussard's decision, but he fears nothing will change.

"I don't think there's going to be any landmark change in the way Fresno Unified does business," he said. "They'll (say), 'We have to pay for attorneys anyway. In the grand scheme of things, in this overall budget, this is not a lot of money.'"

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

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