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Brain-injured woman sues school district, claims faulty education

A former student has sued the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, alleging that administrators cheated her out of an education by waiving requirements for graduation after she suffered a traumatic brain injury in her senior year.

Instead of crafting a plan to deal with her new disability, Crystal Morales alleges that administrators and teachers boosted her grades and dropped assignments in an effort to rush her toward graduation, at which point their obligation to educate her ended.

“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 federal lawsuit filed in Orange County in May.

The lawsuit asks a judge to invalidate Morales’ diploma, in essence forcing Newport-Mesa Unified to provide a redo for the last few months of her education after the injury outside of Newport-Harbor High School.

“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. In fact, the district argues it was Gloria Morales 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,” said a response the school district filed in court.

Morales was injured in 2011. She was 17 at the time and crossing the street just outside Newport Harbor when an intoxicated Costa Mesa woman driving a black Chevy Tahoe slammed into her.

A year later, the driver — then-39-year-old Marnie Jo Lippincott — was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to driving under the influence.

The crash left Morales in a coma for a time and she’s still suffering from the aftereffects of the serious head injury.

“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.”

According to her mother, Morales struggles to focus and retain information when she studies.

Nevertheless, she returned to high school classes about three months after the crash. Her mother said she hoped socialization would help pull Morales out of a depression.

At first she was offered one-on-one attention, but that quickly changed when she returned to normal classes but was not required to complete normal work, the lawsuit contends.

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

In another instance laid out in the lawsuit, Morales was receiving a D grade in her math class before the injury, but it was allegedly 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.

That practice damaged Morales’ ability to continue her education, according to her lawsuit.

After failing classes designed for students with brain injuries at Coastline Community College, Morales asked to leave the program.

“She kind of figured that she was going to skip through that, not really realizing what her limitations were,” Gloria Morales said.

The school district argues that any accommodations it made for Morales were within the allowed discretion of teachers and administrators.

For instance, the practice of “freezing” grades after a student is forced to miss class isn’t out of the ordinary, according to a written response filed by the district.

“The District asserts that Plaintiff earned a grade of A-plus in math based upon direct testimony that she turned in her assignments, and because she completed all the work required by her teacher in the teacher’s discretion,” the report states.

A school district spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the practice of grade freezing or answer other questions because it is district policy not to comment on pending litigation.

However, the district’s response in court noted that Gloria Morales didn’t object 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.

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.

Crystal Morales’ attorney alleges it was the district’s responsibility to make sure her client was offered the services and education she needed.

“Their big excuse was, ‘We asked the mother,’” Whiteleather said. “But the mother was so embroiled in trying to keep her daughter alive.”


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