Her son was suicidal. Now, a Fresno County school district must make changes, judge says

A mother goes up against a district for failing her special education son, and wins

Mia Holguin, mother of a Tranquillity High student who she said was being bullied, had suicidal thoughts and was failing in classes, and the Golden Plains Unified School District failed to intervene.
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Mia Holguin, mother of a Tranquillity High student who she said was being bullied, had suicidal thoughts and was failing in classes, and the Golden Plains Unified School District failed to intervene.

In 2018, Mia Holguin’s 17-year-old son told a Tranquillity High School teacher he was having thoughts of killing himself.

The teacher walked the special education student to his next class and then waited until school ended that day – about three hours later – to notify Holguin.

Holguin said she asked the school district for help for her son after he experienced the emotional crisis in school, but nobody listened.

“I asked them for help and they didn’t respond. They didn’t help at all,” she said.

A judge in July ruled the Golden Plains Unified School District, which oversees Tranquillity High and five other schools in western Fresno County, failed Holguin’s son and ordered the district to make changes that include training special education staff and other updates.

The Fresno Bee is not naming Holguin’s son because he is an alleged victim of bullying.

After the situation with her son happened, Holguin turned to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings for help. An administrative law judge decided Golden Plains had a duty to “assess the student’s mental health needs following his emotional crisis at school on (Nov.) 7, 2018, and disclosure of suicidal (thoughts), but failed to do so.”

The school district had already failed to assess him properly a few months earlier in April 2018, according to the decision.

In failing to assess the student’s needs, Golden Plains also deprived the student of an appropriate learning plan. The decision further states, that Golden Plains failed to provide sufficient psychological and counseling services.

“Without these services, student was unable to benefit from his educational program,” the judge wrote.

Golden Plains Superintendent Martin Macias said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case. He also did not address questions regarding bullying and suicide prevention on campus. Instead, he issued a statement:

“We cannot offer detailed comments on this specific situation because we have a strict obligation to protect student privacy rights. However, I can assure our school community that our employees place the highest priority on student well-being and safety, and we are committed to provide all children with an excellent education.”

The judge is requiring the district to provide six hours of training to all its special education staff. The school district must provide an independent psycho-educational evaluation for Holguin’s son, including a social and emotional assessment, and an independent mental health evaluation to meet his special education needs.

The district must provide 29 hours of independent mental health counseling to Holguin’s son with a mental health provider of his parents’ choice. Plus, it must contract with a qualified special education teacher to provide individual academic instruction.

Alfonso Padron, a parent advocate who assisted Holguin on her son’s case, hailed the judge’s decision as important, especially because a few years ago, California began to require school districts to have suicide prevention policies in place.

In fall 2016, California approved Assembly Bill 2246, requiring districts to implement suicide prevention policies by the 2017-18 school year.

Additionally, every school district is required under federal law to provide appropriate special education according to a student’s needs, Padron said.

“The severity of the issues, I think in this case, may resonate throughout the state of California because ... when you look at the issues, (you) are talking about bullying, you are talking about suicide, you are talking about not complying with (special education students’ individualized plans),” said Padron, who works as a parent advocate for special education with Service, Employment and Redevelopment, a nonprofit that says it advocates increased development on the needs of Hispanics.

A crisis erupts

In the case of Holguin’s son, a teacher reported on the boy’s 2018 student individualized plan – a plan every special education student receives once a year – that he wasn’t “accepted by his classroom peers,” according to the complaint filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings.

On Nov. 7, 2018, Holguin’s son had an emotional crisis. “Student began to cry and told (the teacher) that his friends told him that he was ‘so weird’ that he should just kill himself,” the 60-page decision reads. “Student expressed that maybe he should kill himself.”

According to Holguin, she asked the school to help her son after the crisis incident, but no counseling was offered.

Mia Holguin, mother of a Tranquility High student who she said he was being bullied, had suicidal thoughts and was failing in classes, and the Golden Plains Unified School District failed to intervened as required, talks about the ordeal. She filed a complaint with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, and a judge held a special hearing on the case, siding with Holquin. Under the judges decision, the school district will be required to make several changes, including training all of its special education staff. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Afterward, her son began showing up at the school’s nurses office, complaining of stomachaches and headaches. Holguin said that was a result of being bullied and not wanting to be in school. His grades dropped from a 3.14 grade point average the prior school year to a 1.0 GPA after his November crisis, and still no help came.

According to the complaint, the alleged bullying continued after the student’s emotional crisis, and on one occasion, a student threw an apple at Holguin’s son, hitting him in the face.

After the November incident, Holguin’s son ended up missing 14 days of school because he didn’t feel safe. Holguin said he would cry because he didn’t want to go to school because of the bullying.

During a special hearing in May, no teacher reported seeing Holguin’s son being bullied. However, at least one teacher testified she observed Holguin’s son being uncomfortable with her class environment, where students “physically pushed each other, used bad language, and engaged in verbal bullying.”

The teacher “persuasively explained that verbal bullying and cussing were an ongoing problem that administration had not effectively tackled,” the decision reads.

Holguin said she was worried about her son’s safety. “I didn’t want to get that other phone call saying that something had happened to my son.”

Now that the district has been put on notice by the judge’s decision, Holguin said she is hopeful there will be change.

“I’m just waiting to see if the school is gonna actually help this time .... now that I have their attention.”

A suicide prevention policy was discussed during the Golden Plains July 16 board meeting, according to the meeting’s agenda.

Padron, the parent advocate, said Holguin’s son’s disability, coupled with the bullying, “caused emotional disturbance which they should’ve initially, right away on emergency basis, assessed. “They didn’t do that, and they didn’t do that because they didn’t have the polices in place.”

Macias didn’t respond to questions about the alleged bullying and suicide prevention policies at the school district.

In fiscal year 2018, there were a total of 2,271 special education cases filed, statewide, with the Office of Administrative Hearings, according to statistics from the office.

Padron said Holguin’s case was the first filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings against the Golden Plains.