Federal officials close investigation into Burbank parent’s allegations of bias against learning-disabled son

Kelly Duenckel, right, and her son Robert Duenckel, 13, at home showing some of the geodes he's collected along with some geology books.
(Raul Roa / Burbank Leader)

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights closed its investigation into Burbank Unified last week, several months after a Burbank parent alleged discrimination against her son based on his disability.

Kelly Duenckel filed a complaint after her son, Robert Duenckel, who has learning disabilities, was initially told he would not participate in a popular cow-eye dissection lab, which he ultimately did after Duenckel pressed school officials to include her son and fellow special-education students in the lab.

The complaint alleged that special-education students were denied an opportunity to participate in science labs that were provided to general-education students.

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Duenckel also alleged Burbank Unified discriminated against her son by failing to provide science classrooms equipped with proper facilities for students with disabilities.

The investigators found that Burbank school officials “took immediate steps to resolve the first two allegations” and closed the case.

Meanwhile, the federal office found “insufficient evidence” to support Duenckel’s third allegation that her son and others with disabilities were not given an equal opportunity to participate in clubs, electives and scholarship programs.

She made the allegation, in part, on the basis that math and reading intervention courses were scheduled during the same time as electives, potentially impacting students with learning disabilities who more often participate in intervention courses than general-education students.

Duenckel said she was “a little disappointed” in that inconclusive finding. Overall, however, she said she was pleased with the results of the investigation, which led to immediate change.

“I am satisfied with the overall outcome, and I am appreciative of [Burbank Unified’s] commitment to bringing the science program and lab access in line with the law,” Duenckel said.

Burbank school officials made several immediate changes at John Muir Middle School, where Duenckel’s son was in the seventh grade last school year. They also reviewed and altered the way they operate the science programs at David Starr Jordan and Luther Burbank middle schools.

They found that during the 2015-16 school year, general-education students completed 45 science labs compared to the 26 labs that special-education students completed, according to a report.

“The district recognized that it needed to ensure that students with disabilities had equal opportunities to participate and made substantive changes to its programs,” the report stated.

As part of the steps Burbank school officials took at all three middle schools to remedy the problem, they now ensure that special-education students have access to the same curriculum, labs, equipment and trained teachers as general-education students.

“Our focus is always on supporting and serving our students,” said Burbank Supt. Matt Hill in response to the report. “In every situation when there is an opportunity for improvement, we take action.”


Kelly Corrigan,

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan