If you asked Isabel just last year what her biggest wish was, she’d tell you it was to see her two ten-year old girls, Camila and Valeria*, learn how to write and read. Little kids ask for pet fish, doll houses and toys for Christmas. When Isabel, the twin girls’ mother, asked Camila two years ago what she wanted from Santa, Camila took a card, drew a stick figure and a book, placed it in an envelope and gave it to her mom. The message was clear: Camila wanted to be able to read and write more than anything in the world. This broke Isabel’s heart. She recalls telling her daughter, “Everything will be all right. You will learn how to read, I promise you.” But Camila started crying: “You’re lying! I’ve been in school for five years and I still don’t know how to read and write!” To a ten-year old, five years is half her life.
Isabel, a beautician, always took great pride in making sure her girls looked put together and today was no exception. The girls’ long brown hair was neatly combed and styled with a pretty white bow. They wore matching baby blue summer dresses and brown sandals. Add books and backpacks to the picture and to the casual observer, they appear like two perfect schoolgirls. Except Valeria and her sister began to learn how to read and write just a few months ago.
The mom suspected her daughters might have learning disabilities and autism based on family history. Valeria has pica - repeated eating of non-food items - an eating disorder most often displayed by children with autism. Isabel has to watch her very carefully as she might eat paper, wall paint, or even hand sanitizer. Camila would bite her nails so hard that they often bled and she could not hold a pencil. The girls had a lot of trouble in all areas including academically, socially and behaviorally. Both daughters struggled to learn basic words, letters and even basic addition. Isabel knew something was going on, so she went to the teachers in kindergarten and told them she was concerned her daughters had learning disabilities and autism. However, their school failed to conduct a complete and thorough evaluation.
For the next five years, Isabel would ask the school officials for help explaining that her daughters were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but even after this diagnosis no evaluation took place. They both had trouble focusing on basic tasks. A simple act of teaching her daughters how to eat with a fork was a struggle as Camila and Valeria continued to use their fingers rather than hold a utensil to eat their meals. Even though Camila and Valeria had not made any progress, the school kept denying them the proper and thorough evaluations and special education services that could have made a whole world of difference in their young lives.
Isabel could not remember all the times she had felt helpless, sad and angry at how the school had treated her daughters. Once, she attended a school board meeting asking for help, but to no avail. Another time, she found out that Camila was placed in the corner by one of the teachers on a daily basis. While other children participated in class, Camila would play with papers, usually shuffling them around until the class would end. Both girls were functioning at the level of a pre-kindergartner, yet their school continued to ignore their struggles as they progressed up to the fifth grade. On top of all this, the girls were also bullied in school and felt scared and isolated. Still the school did not help the girls - as if Isabel’s daughters were invisible in the classroom, not seen nor heard by their school. Desperate for help, Isabel started talking to other parents – one of whom told her about Learning Rights Law Center.
Learning Rights, together with co-counsels Shawna Parks and Stuart Seaborn, advocated on Camila’s and Valeria’s behalf. We requested that the school stop neglecting the girls and instead provide them with the special education services they were entitled to by law. As a result of our advocacy, the girls’ disabilities - including a final diagnosis of autism, language disorders and attention issues - have finally been recognized by their school. They have begun to receive life-changing services, including speech therapy, mental health counseling, behavioral therapy, and in-home therapy. When the school agreed to provide these services but failed to implement them, Learning Rights advocated on their behalf again. Learning Rights continues to advocate for them and other students experiencing similar treatment from the school.
The significance of our advocacy efforts for Camila and Valeria goes beyond helping achieve their individual access to an education. As part of our advocacy, we requested that their school make systemic changes to their special education policies. These changes included a request that the teachers and school officials be trained on special education law. In addition, Learning Rights and our co-counsels filed a class action lawsuit claiming widespread and systemic failure by the School District to provide dozens of other students with access to a meaningful education. These efforts will help eliminate future discrimination against students like Camila and Valeria.
As the girls write their name on the paper and proudly show us their achievement, Isabel tells us how happy she is with the progress her girls are making today: “Learning Rights, Stuart and Shawna accomplished more in one month than the school did in the past five years. My girls can read up to entire sentences. They are learning to write and know all their colors now! It’s going to make a whole world of difference!”
Students' and their family's names have been changed to protect their privacy