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During Strike, As In Pandemic, Students With Special Needs Get Sidelined

A family of four at an LA Dodgers game. From left to right there is a woman with a backward baseball hat on, a girl with medium-length brown hair, a boy  and a man with a mustache, both with brown hair and blue baseball hats with the L.A. logo on it.
Vanessa, Gigi, Jude and Leonard Gonzales at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. The family lives in the west San Fernando Valley and is navigating the Los Angeles Unified shutdown this week. "They deserve to be treated with dignity, and that needs to show up in their pay," Leonard said of the striking school staff.
(Courtesy of Leonard Gonzales)
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San Fernando Valley sixth grader Marie will be home from school for much of this week, along with more than 422,000 other Los Angeles Unified students.

District support staff members are striking to protest alleged harassment during contract negotiations over the last year. Teachers have also walked off the job in solidarity.

“She loves going to school,” said Marie’s mom, Kathy L. “I think school is one of her favorite places.”

The family is enduring an uncertain week. Marie has multiple diagnoses, including autism. LAist agreed not to publish the family’s last name and use their daughter’s middle name to protect their privacy.

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Even after a 2019 teachers strike and the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Kathy said there’s little support tailored to her sixth grader’s needs during a disruption like this week’s school closures.

“I feel like my daughter and students like her are consistently forgotten when the district plans for this kind of situation,” she said.

What is clear is that the district cannot educate any students without support staff and the teachers who have joined their strike in solidarity.

On a typical school day, a bus driver assisted by an aide picks Marie up. Another staffer greets her at school, walks with her to her classroom where Marie receives one-on-one support from another aide throughout the day.

“They're definitely people who have made a difference in my daughter's life,” Kathy said. ”I've been able to see how much they care and how important their work is.”

'Essential' support for students with disabilities

SEIU Local 99 is made up of 30,000 cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, and classroom assistants, including those who work with children who have disabilities.

“This needs to be done not only for us, but so that their kids get what they deserve,” said special education assistant Yolanda Reed, referring to the strike. “Get more people that's there for the needs that they have and services that they're required to provide.”

A group of people protest on a city sidewalk in the rain. They are walking in a loose line. At the front, a woman wearing a red poncho carries a sign that says "fighting for clean, safe & supportive schools." Most carry umbrellas and wear rain coats.
School support staff members strike for better treatment and better pay from Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. The teachers union joined the strike in solidarity.
(Ashley Balderrama

By law, students with disabilities have a right to a “free appropriate public education.” If they need extra accommodations or therapies to accomplish that, the district has to provide it. Those supports are often outlined in a 504 or individualized education plan.

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As of April 2022, there were nearly 69,000 students with either a 504 or individualized education plan in the district, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Instructional aides, paraprofessionals that I've worked with are really an extension of the teacher,” said Nasser Cortez, who spent a decade as a special education teacher and is now an assistant professor of clinical education with the USC Rossier School of Education.

“I call [my students] superheroes. I don't say they have special needs. They have special abilities.”
— Special education assistant Yolanda Reed

Aides run small groups where students practice reading, math, and other academic skills. They also provide emotional support, and in some cases, help students eat and use the bathroom.

“I can't see any world in which … my students would be able to flourish without the support of those aides in the classroom,” Cortez said.

Reed started out as a volunteer at her son’s preschool in 2000 and now works as a special education assistant at Hamilton High School.

“I call 'em superheroes,” Reed said of the students she works with.”I don't say they have special needs. They have special abilities.”

Reed often works with a single student for years at a time. She’s currently paired with a high school senior who has epilepsy. Reed said she’s the one responsible for administering the girl’s medication and making sure her airways are clear during seizures.

“Just being with children for me is, is, is the highlight of my day,” Reed said. “I leave my job every day happy, despite the other situations that we're fighting about.”

'It's ... about respect'

Reed is an SEIU Local 99 steward and said her colleagues have been threatened by school administration for participating in union activities. The union has filed more than a dozen unfair labor practices with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.

The union has been negotiating with the district over wages and other benefits for the last year.

“It's really a lot about respect,” said pre-K special education assistant Henry Argueta. “They’ve been saying that we are essential workers, that we're doing a great job, but we need a livable wage.”

The union is seeking a 30% increase and an additional $2 an hour for the lowest paid union members. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district’s most recent offer is a 23% raise with a 3% bonus.

Reed said during her tenure she’s been homeless and had to stay with friends and family to make ends meet.

“I had to call power companies and the gas company and ask for an extension because I knew I wouldn't have the money to pay them,” Reed said.

Union members say they also want to see more staffing that would help school conditions improve.

“We change our diapers and take care of our kids in these areas,” said Princess Benson, a health care assistant at Betty Plasencia Elementary. “When they eat in that cafeteria, it needs to be cleaned.”

A large crowd of people dressed in red and purple. In the middle, someone holds up a sign that says "My special ed TAs deserve a raise!!"
Thousands gather outside LAUSD headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles in support of the SEIU99 and UTLA strike, holding signs and chanting up and down 3rd Street and Beaudry Avenue.
(Ashley Balderrama

Inadequate services

Here’s how Leonard Gonzales explained the strike to his 11-year-old daughter Gigi and 9-year-old son Jude, who attend a Los Angeles Unified school in the West San Fernando Valley.

”The people who care for you guys daily, they’re not being paid fair and they had to stand up for themselves,” Gonzales said. “We’re taking a little break.”

Gonzales, who is a stay-at-home parent, said the first day of the strike had a "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" approach. The family went to In-N-Out for lunch, and when he talked to LAist in the afternoon, his daughter was playing with her guitar and toy drum set.

“A few years ago she sang a song about underwear and it's still a hit around the house,” Gonzales said.

Gigi has a rare chromosomal disorder and navigates fifth grade with the help of one-on-one aides. Gonzales said they’ve helped her learn how to hold a pencil and organize her thoughts into sentences.

“They're so invaluable,” Gonzales said. “The way I see it, paying them their wage is long overdue.”

They're so invaluable. The way I see it, paying them their wage is long overdue.
— Leonard Gonzales, parent of two Los Angeles Unified students

Gonzales said his family has had to work with an attorney to get Gigi the support she needs from the district.

“We're not litigious people,” Gonzales said. “We're just trying to get what we feel she deserves to have the best outcome in her educational process.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LAist and other news organizations reported that it became even more difficult for families to get basic special education services.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights later found the district failed to provide adequate services to students with disabilities. The nonprofit news outlet The 74 reported earlier this year that a plan to make up for that loss “has been uneven at best."

Parents make due

Kathy L. said the pandemic shattered her daughter Marie’s school routine and shut her out of her favorite activities, like swimming at the public pool.

“None of the things that we would normally have done to help her deal with this loss were available, and that loss was compounded,” Kathy said.

Marie stopped sleeping through the night and her sleep schedule still hasn’t returned to normal.

Kathy is taking the next three days off from her marketing job to care for her daughter.

“I cannot take a minimally verbal child who requires one-to-one supervision and just drop her off at an unfamiliar school with no one she knows or can communicate with,” Kathy said, referring to the child care being offered at some school sites during the strike. “That's wildly inappropriate.”

LAist requested an interview with someone from Los Angeles Unified's division of special education. A spokesperson said LAUSD has made an effort "to have activities and resources available" to students during these non-instructional days and shared back a list of resources provided to families, including on-demand tutoring. The district has said that district-run child care sites will provide "only supervision."

Kathy said the instructional materials she’s received from the district are not tailored to the goals outlined in Marie’s individualized education plan and they don’t equip her with the skills to meet her daughter’s needs.

“It's quite stressful,” Kathy said. “I'm certainly not a special education teacher, or a speech therapist, or any of the support people that my daughter interacts with on a daily basis at school.”

Marie slept in on Tuesday, after waking up for a couple hours in the middle of the night, and spent part of the day watching Sleeping Beauty. She’s a big fan of Disney movies.

“This is clearly bringing up a lot of trauma from the pandemic for her,” Kathy said. “I'm trying to make sure that she understands that this is going to be much shorter, but also giving her plenty of opportunity to have different activities and to feel comfortable under these circumstances.”

LAist newsroom intern Ryanne Mena contributed to this story.

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