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Disabled Student Tells How She Survived System

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’ve heard about her for years, starting with the Chanda Smith lawsuit and the Chanda Smith federal court order and the classroom reforms now slowly coming from the Los Angeles school system’s Chanda Smith Consent Decree Office.

On Thursday, her classmates heard from Chanda Smith herself.

The shy schoolgirl with a learning disability, who six years ago slipped through the cracks of the Los Angeles Unified School District, explained for the first time how she survived--and how her experience is helping redefine education for nearly 70,000 disabled school children.

Smith, who flunked the 10th grade twice before her desperate mother sued Los Angeles educators to force them to place her in special education classes, was a keynote speaker at her high school graduation.

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“All of you have a special story about what you had to do, what sacrifices you had to make, to get where you are today. But I’d like to tell you my story,” she told 800 graduating seniors from 53 city continuation and special-need high schools.

And with that, Smith, 22, told of years of personal torture as she struggled in vain to keep up with other children in class--and then struggled without success to get teachers to help her.

“I knew I had to get an education. I knew that without it, I’d never be anything,” she told fellow graduates and an audience of several thousand relatives and friends gathered at Palisades High School.

“When I got to high school, I started asking my teachers and counselors for help, but it seemed that no one wanted to help. It seemed that the school didn’t care . . . that if someone had cared, surely they would have done their part.”

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It turned out that because of sloppy school district record-keeping, staff members at Manual Arts High School overlooked the fact that Smith had received special tutoring in middle school for a visual disorder that made it difficult for her mind to process what she sees. High school officials refused to heed pleas by her mother, Eliza Thompson, that the girl be placed in a special education program.

So when Smith flunked the 10th grade for the second time, Thompson said she “got out the Yellow Pages and started calling attorneys.”

Subsequent testing arranged by lawyers showed that Smith’s reading and math skills were at second- and third-grade levels and that she could not interpret numbers well enough even to tell time.

School administrators later indicated that the disorganized record-keeping stemmed from the retirement in 1992 of the assistant superintendent for special education and the subsequent elimination of his position.

As Smith’s lawsuit progressed, it was broadened to include the concerns of other parents.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Education investigated the school district and found it failed to comply with the federal 1973 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, particularly in delaying by months the requirement that special ed students be reassessed every three years.

Board of education members acknowledged in late 1995 that the district’s handling of disabled students violated state and federal laws and agreed to settle Smith’s case, which by that time had become a class-action lawsuit.

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The Chanda Smith Consent Decree, as it was formally named, was signed by a federal judge in April 1996. It requires the school district to expand educational offerings to the system’s 69,000 disabled students and move more handicapped children into regular classes.

In Thursday’s speech, Smith, who has learned to read at about the sixth-grade level, confided that at one point in her ordeal she attempted suicide. But she stopped, she said, when she came to realize that she had the chance “to do something to make things better for myself and other people.”

Smith touched only lightly on the complexities of her lawsuit and its settlement, and on the slow pace at which the agreed-upon improvements are taking place.

“The fight isn’t over yet,” she told the crowd. “There are other kids like me that need help.”

Nodding in agreement was Central High School teacher Dan Ackerman, who used phonics techniques to boost Smith’s reading level and “old-fashioned memorization” to help her learn her multiplication tables.

Ackerman complained that the school district’s Chanda Smith Consent Decree Office is moving too slowly to have any real impact. The office is run by two independent administrators--a former state bureaucrat and a Pennsylvania academic who spent two years cataloging the district’s special education mistakes before the consent decree was signed.

“My one fear is that the school district is going to confuse the process with the result,” Ackerman said out of earshot of Smith. “The paperwork they’re producing is beautiful. It’s beautifully legal. But what’s coming behind it?”

The consent decree--which calls for a five-year improvement process--got off to a rocky start when, in early 1997, the district’s director of special education resigned, complaining that the revamping efforts were disjointed.

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Late last year, the school board agreed to spend nearly $6 million to pay for consultants and extra staff to implement the consent decree.

Listening from the background to Smith’s speech Thursday was Steven Mark, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education. He said two of the decree’s 31 specified plans have been implemented so far. They cover procedural matters, however: maximizing government revenues and creating a mission statement.

Smith, who is now the mother of two young children and is engaged to be married, said she plans next to enroll at Trade Tech to study nursing.

“There’s always a way,” she said. “I’m proof of that.”


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