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Burbank mom fights back after learning-disabled students are left out

Kelly Duenckel and her son Robert Duenckel at home with some of the geodes and geology books in his collection.
Kelly Duenckel and her son Robert Duenckel at home with some of the geodes and geology books in his collection.
(Raul Roa / Burbank Leader)

Kelly Duenckel had something important to tell her son, so she sat him down at the kitchen table in their Burbank home.

It was early March, and the science lab that students rave about at John Muir Middle School was coming up. Many of Robert’s seventh-grade classmates would get to dissect a cow’s eye, but he would not.

As a student in the Special Day class at Muir, Robert has learning disabilities, including short-term memory deficiencies stemming from a seizure disorder. Blinking back tears, he asked why he couldn’t participate.

“I didn’t have a good answer for him,” Duenckel said.

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She had been told by school officials that there wasn’t a credentialed special education teacher on hand to lead the lab, that there wasn’t enough funding and that Special Day students hadn’t participated in the cow-eye dissection for at least the last four years.

So Duenckel did what she said any mother would do: She complained, taking her concerns to Muir’s administrators, then to Burbank Unified’s superintendent and school board.

Her action led to Robert being allowed to participate in the dissection lab. But Duenckel fought for his classmates to take part as well.

During an April school board meeting, Superintendent Matt Hill said: “We are providing in areas what’s required for special-ed, but that’s not good enough. When we have a tagline of ‘Excellence and Equity’ and we have situations where we have students not getting what they deserve, it’s not something I’m going to tolerate.”

Although Hill noted a need for improvement, his reference to the district fulfilling what’s required ultimately pushed Duenckel to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Federal officials have opened an investigation into her allegations, including that Robert was discriminated against because he was a student in a Special Day class.

“I thought, ‘You are not making the minimum [effort],’” Duenckel said. “You need to have same or comparable labs, and no lab at all is not ‘same or comparable.’”

This month, the California Department of Education also opened a compliance investigation to determine if the district had violated any special-education regulations.

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Hill said he could not comment, citing the pending investigation.

Duenckel said she hoped the end result would be new policies at Burbank Unified regarding Special Day students.

“The education that they receive should be just as valuable as the education that [general-education] students get,” she said.

kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

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Corrigan writes for Times Community News

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