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Rhoda Benedetti used to believe in the public school system. When she first enrolled her daughter, Kyra, in the Walnut Creek, Calif., school district, she expected the little girl would attend the neighborhood school with her peers and eat lunch in the cafeteria with her sister and playmates. But Benedetti, whose daughter was born with cerebral palsy, says she has spent the last decade fighting the Mount Diablo Unified School District for her child’s access to school programs and facilities. Benedetti grew so frustrated with the district that she enrolled in the evening program at John F. Kennedy University School of Law in Walnut Creek. Less than a year after her graduation in 1997, she brought a class action discrimination suit against the district. The suit, whose name plaintiff is a 16-year-old boy born with cerebral palsy and which includes other disabled students in the district, settled last week after two years of negotiations. School administrators stipulated to removing architectural access barriers, unraveling policies denying access to programs at its 55 school sites and implementing a series of programs to better assist and inform disabled students and their parents. More importantly, the settlement requires administrators to add three new programs to provide disabled students with the augmentative communication devices they need, ensure aides are properly trained to assist children with disabilities, and provide a full-time parent liaison to help parents of disabled kids navigate through the public school system. Benedetti notes that those concessions go beyond the hard-and-fast requirements of state and federal laws. “One of the huge goals of the Mt. Diablo case was to change the attitude of the school district … Students can’t just be stuck in a portable and ignored,” Benedetti said. Mt. Diablo school administrators say they have been working toward implementing the mandates set out in 1990 by the Americans with Disabilities Act and concede that the changes have come slowly — in part because of a lack of state and federal funding. The administrators agree that the settlement is an important step toward the broader participation of the student body in the district’s programs. “It opens the door to a more inclusive environment,” says Kathryn Luhe, partner with San Francisco’s Miller, Brown & Dannis, who represented the school district in negotiations with Benedetti and other parents of disabled children. Benedetti is continuing her crusade at the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, which is working to identify school districts around the state where non-compliance with the ADA continues to be a problem. She says she hopes the Mt. Diablo suit will stand as a model for other districts — and other attorneys and parent advocates who want to push their local schools to integrate disabled students into its programs. “Disabled students are not provided the same educational material,” Benedetti said. “They are not included in the cafeteria or in assemblies. This is a civil rights issue.” The Mt. Diablo district’s inability or failure to comply was pervasive enough to draw the attention of the U.S. Department of Education. Benedetti points to a 1999 report from the agency that both chastises the state Department of Education for its “continuing failure to exercise its general supervisory responsibility over local school districts” and cites the Mt. Diablo district as an example of districts where non-compliance remains a problem. Luhe, whose firm has worked with hundreds of school districts around the state, said the desire to meet the needs of students with special education requirements and disabilities must be seen in the broader context of a school district’s responsibility to students. Special needs children account for about 5,500 kids in a district with more than 35,000 students — and limited financial and personnel resources. “Special education programs and their costs are mandated by the state, but there’s a huge gap in California between the cost a district must put in and what the district gets back from the state,” Luhe said. While the delay stems in part from a lack of funding, Luhe said, it also is a result of the time-intensive nature of fulfilling the mandates. “The ADA really required a thorough analysis. People really did have to measure doorways and measure restrooms. It wasn’t something that could be done casually but in fact was an enormous task,” she said. But the issue of whether public schools can reasonably be expected to meet the needs of severely disabled students is, in fact, irrelevant, Luhe said. “It may be a tremendous task to ask of our classroom environment,” said Luhe, whose parents are both disabled. “Some teachers and many educators may perceive it as a burden while others see it as an opportunity. But it is the law and we really need to work with it.” Michael Guarino, dean of John F. Kennedy University School of Law and one of Benedetti’s law professors, credited Benedetti for her passion and follow-through on the Mt. Diablo case. “She was on a mission right from the beginning — but really not a mission of vengeance. She talked a lot about the fact that she saw disabled children who were not getting full service from their public schools and to her it’s been a mission of justice,” Guarino says. “That’s obviously what the laws require, but those laws don’t mean a damn thing unless they’re enforced.”

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