Gloria Perez-Stewart was adamant: Her son would not attend school while his teachers at Eagle Rock Jr./Sr. High School were on strike. But for Perez-Stewart and her son, Aidan Villasenor Walker, skipping school involves much more than filling an extra six hours of free time.
Aidan, 19, has autism. At school, he has special education teachers, speech and occupational therapists, and a rigid schedule to help him navigate a world he often struggles to understand.
Losing that network of teachers to picket lines — even briefly — is particularly unsettling for him.
The Los Angeles Unified School District serves more than 60,000 special-needs students, more than 12% of its overall enrollment. The districtwide strike has raised safety concerns for some parents, particularly those whose children have severe intellectual or developmental disabilities. Many have kept their children at home.
Some parents of students with disabilities and some advocates for them say they received no specific information from the district or their schools about how these students would be accommodated. It would have been helpful, they say, in deciding whether to send them to school.
Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent of L.A. Unified’s Division of Special Education, said all pre-strike communication to students and families came from their schools.
“We let parents know if they called us or if they reached out to us, but we didn’t send out any kind of blanket call,” she said. “We didn’t know what staff would be attending and coming to work.”
Loreni Delgado, whose 9-year-old son Miles has Down syndrome, said district-run Carpenter Community Charter School in Studio City never told her whether the aide who shadows her son would be working during the strike.
But even if present, she worried the aide might be pulled to help other students on a day with tighter staffing. Delgado also assumed that the special education teachers allowed to help Miles use the bathroom would be on strike, making a decision to keep him home a “no-brainer.”
“When things don’t go the way he expects at school, it’s very difficult for him to have a good day,” Delgado said. “What’s the point of sending him to school when he’s potentially throwing himself on the floor and having people there not knowing what to do with him?”
For other parents, the availability of their child’s aide was irrelevant. Sarah Bloom decided to send her son, who has autism, to a day camp on the strike’s first day.
“If he has negative experiences there or problems arise there for him, he will have much less success going to school in the future there,” she said.
Before the strike, attorneys for L.A. Unified sought a court order to compel employees who work with students with disabilities and special needs to come to work. The district has operated under a consent decree since 1996, after a student was denied services required under federal law.
Attorneys for the district argued that if teachers, nurses, counselors and psychiatric social workers went on strike, special-needs students would again be denied such services, jeopardizing compliance with the consent decree. U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew disagreed, denying the district’s request but leaving open a possibility for the district to seek a court order later.
Union leaders hailed Lew’s decision.
Perez-Stewart said she was disgusted that the district tried to forbid special education teachers from striking by using the consent decree after decades of doing little to comply with it.
“They’re using our kids as pawns,” she said.
On the eve of the strike, Perez-Stewart and about 30 parents of LAUSD students with special needs gathered in a Montebello law office to talk about what to expect. Some were bewildered, she said.
A father of a 5-year-old boy with autism “had no idea how to structure his day without school,” said John Stewart, Perez-Stewart’s husband. “We had to help them build a timeline, broken down into every 15 minutes.”
Few parents were willing to send their kids to sparsely-staffed schools, he recalled. Some planned to stagger their workdays so one parent would always be home with the child. Others arranged for relatives to move in and help provide care.
But some parents who did send their children to school were pleasantly surprised.
After staying home on the first day of the strike with her 13-year-old son, Joshua, Perla Esparza decided she didn’t want to continue breaking his routine.
Joshua has PURA syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that has left him non-verbal and unable to walk on his own. The situation posed a dilemma for Esparza: While she supported his teachers’ cause, she also depended on the services offered at Los Angeles Academy Middle School.
“As a mother, I was worried that maybe the district was going to think that I didn’t want services,” she said. “If he doesn’t receive services in school, where will he get them?”
She planned on taking him to the South Park school herself if his regular aide wasn’t on the school bus, and staying with him throughout the day to take care of his basic needs. But on Tuesday morning, the bus pulled up with Joshua’s aide.
“I was really happy," Esparza said.
Kauffman, the district official, didn’t have specific data on how many students who receive special education services attended classes, but said that anecdotally, “we’re finding that our students with disabilities are coming to school at greater rate than most general ed students.”
She said that privately contracted aides were instructed to come to work to support to students who showed up, and that the district deployed over 200 employees who report to the department’s special education division to help.
However, Valerie Vanaman, an attorney who represents students with disabilities in the district, said that mass deployment had consequences. Some district staff who normally handle complaints about special education services were reassigned to schools instead, bringing those mediation cases to a halt.
“The district now has, even after two days of this strike, a major state and federal compliance issue on its hands because it has all of these disputes with nobody to talk to to resolve them,” she said.
If the strike lasts only about a week, Kauffman said the district should still be able to keep the timelines in these cases.