Ten-year-old Millie Kimbrough has Rett syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects her ability to walk, talk and use her hands. She is supposed to be in the fifth grade at Grattan Elementary, but her parents have kept her home for nearly three months because they say school staff refused to help her move around or go to the bathroom.
“You can’t just refuse to help someone go to the bathroom,” said her mother, Jill Kimbrough. “They’ve just given us a really hard time. They just want to put kids in a wheelchair because it’s easier. ”
The Kimbrough family, frustrated by efforts to persuade San Francisco Unified School District officials to meet their daughter’s needs, has joined other parents across the state in a lawsuit against the state Department of Education. They allege the department has failed to enforce the federal law governing special education.
“They don’t act on known problems, they don’t investigate, they don’t enforce,” said Katy Franklin, chair of San Francisco’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. Franklin, whose son has autism, said she has filed fruitless complaints with the department and is now party to the lawsuit.
The suit, which alleges a systemic failure of special education across California, was filed a month after the state Education Department released an audit of SFUSD that cited hundreds of violations of special education laws. The department has ordered the school district to correct the violations by May 22, but parents say they doubt that would change much.
“There’s a lot more violations than that,” Franklin said, noting that the department only reviewed the files for fewer than 100 of the district’s 6,500 special education students.
This is not the first time SFUSD’s special education program has been under fire. In 2010, an internal audit called the program “outdated.” And other investigations have found that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled.
Elizabeth Blanco, who took over as assistant superintendent of special education in February, acknowledged the district had room to improve. But she said many of the 502 state citations were due to antiquated software school officials had been using to keep track of students’ files. That system was replaced in December, she said.
The district also is working to train faculty and staff in how to write and keep track of education plans for students with disabilities, and it held professional development sessions after the state report came out.
“These are challenges that we see across the state of California,” Blanco said, “but we’re moving toward inclusive practices, and I think San Francisco is actually ahead of a lot of districts.”
Blanco, whose own child has special needs, said the district also was working to improve relationships with parents, Kimbrough said she hoped the lawsuit would force the state to keep a closer eye on districts such as the SFUSD so Millie can return to school with the proper support.