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Disabled high school grad wants diploma invalidated, sues for do-over

Disabled high school grad wants diploma invalidated, sues for do-over
A graduate of Newport Harbor High School, shown above in 2012, has filed a lawsuit saying she was deprived of a quality education after suffering a traumatic brain injury. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A Newport Beach high school graduate is asking the court to invalidate her diploma, saying her teachers and administrators cheated her out of a quality education by boosting her grades and waiving assignments after she suffered a traumatic brain injury her senior year.

Instead of crafting a plan to deal with her disability, Crystal Morales alleges that administrators and teachers rushed her toward graduation.

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"They said, 'Guess what? You're graduated, bye. We don't want to see you anymore,' " said Tania Whiteleather, who is representing Morales in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Orange County.

The lawsuit asks a judge to invalidate Morales' diploma, in essence forcing the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to provide a redo for the last few months of her education.

"It's all about getting her back to where she left off," Morales' mother, Gloria Morales, said, "giving her the opportunity to pick up where she left off."

The school district, however, says Morales legitimately completed all her high school work and that it was the former student's mother who pushed for graduation.

"[Morales'] mother was adamant that she wanted [Morales] to graduate with a high school diploma, and did not want [Morales] assessed for special education," the district said in court papers filed in response to the lawsuit, which was filed in May.

Morales was injured in 2011 when she was hit by a drunk driver outside Newport Harbor High School. The driver, Marnie Jo Lippincott, 39, was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to driving under the influence.

The crash temporarily left Morales in a coma.

"She is definitely struggling to maintain a school life and a home life," Gloria Morales said. "Her entire personality and interests and everything have changed since the accident."

Morales returned to high school about three months after the crash. At first she was offered one-on-one attention, but that changed when she returned to normal classes but was not required to complete normal work, the lawsuit contends.

In an English class, the suit says, she was given a book to read and told to complete a report on it, but teachers never required her to turn in the assignment.

The suit alleges that Morales was receiving a D in math before the injury, but it was changed to an A-plus by administrators by the end of the semester.

"She was allowed to just skip on through, and she wasn't held responsible for any of that," Gloria Morales said.

In court papers, the district said that Gloria Morales never objected when grades were sent home soon after the semester.

The district maintains that officials explained Morales' options and provided information on special education, but Gloria Morales said Wednesday that she didn't understand what her daughter would miss out on by graduating.

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She said she thought her daughter deserved to cross the stage with her friends at the ceremony.

"Knowing what I know now, I would have never returned her to campus for the reason that we did," Gloria Morales said.

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