The school board voted unanimously this week to deny a claim alleging the Newport-Mesa Unified School District failed to accommodate the needs of a disabled middle school student.
Rebecca Martens filed the claim on behalf of her son, a seventh-grader at Corona del Mar Middle School, urging the district to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, by making all of its school sites accessible for handicapped students.
The ADA requires schools to provide the disabled with an equal opportunity to benefit from all programs, services and activities provided by that institution, said Martin Orlick, a partner specializing in ADA compliance defense at the law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in San Francisco. The firm has no role in Martens' complaint.
He further explained that disabled students should have the same opportunity to learn as fellow students and that the assistance required would depend on the type of disability. A deaf student, for instance, would need accommodations different from someone with a leg injury, Orlick said.
Martens' claim states that last year at Lincoln Elementary School, employees failed to provide wheelchair-accessible tables in the boy's computer and art classes and seating in the covered lunch area, as well as easy-to-use restroom doors and wider paths of travel to and from the playground area.
The issues have continued at Corona del Mar Middle School, the complainant said in an interview.
[My son] comes home with stains all over his clothes because he has to eat lunch without a table every day," Martens said.
While she has attempted to notify the district of these problems since the boy started attending Lincoln Elementary in the fourth grade, the district has failed to cooperate, she said.
A spokeswoman for Newport-Mesa declined to comment on the claim, as did school board President Karen Yelsey.
The boy was born with a leg condition that requires him to undergo numerous surgeries to lengthen the bones. While he has limited mobility at home, he is confined to a wheelchair during the school day to protect himself.
"If he were to trip and fall, the bones in his leg would shatter like glass," Martens said. "They're like an egg shell, basically hollow inside."
Despite his physical limitations, the boy is a typical seventh-grade student with a girlfriend, a passion for science and dreams of becoming a surgeon, the mother said.
In his typing class at Lincoln last year, the boy was forced to sit in a side-reach position to access the keyboard because the school refused to provide a table that would fit his wheelchair, according to the claim.
"He couldn't type fast enough sitting in that position, so of course he failed the class," Martens said.
While the letter to the district claims damages of $100,000 for physical and emotional suffering, discomfort and embarrassment, Martens said the money isn't important.
"I just want [my son] to have the same opportunities as every other student," she said.
If the district is out of compliance with ADA standards, it could potentially be forced to pay damages to the affected students, Orlick said.
"If it happens every time the kid goes to class, the damages could be significant," the lawyer said.
Martens said Corona del Mar students recently took a field trip to volunteer at the Veteran's Hospital in Long Beach, and her son was told he couldn't attend because no bus could accommodate his wheelchair.
"It's the little things that add up to big disappointments for him," his mother said.
When Martens raised concerns with district officials, employees retaliated by threatening to block her emails, ban her from campus and suspend the boy, the claim states.
"The threats against [Martens] seemed to be only blatant attempts by district employees to stop [his] mother from complaining," the claim states.
In negotiations with Martens' former attorney — she no longer has legal representation — the district offered to pay for the boy to attend private school at Newport-Mesa's expense.
However, Martens said, none of the private schools that Newport-Mesa agreed to finance could provide her son with the same opportunities that he would receive at public school.
"At first it sounded really great," Martens said. "But they all had various problems … and [he] didn't want to leave his friends."
Instead, Martens continued to urge the district to upgrade its facilities to provide adequate access for her son and other disabled students.
In response, the district has offered to place the boy, who does not have a mental disability, according to his mother, into a special-education class, she asserted.
Martens addressed the board during Tuesday's meeting, urging trustees to keep her son in general education classes.
"My son has a leg injury. He doesn't have a brain injury," she said Tuesday night. "He has an access problem, not an educational problem."
The boy was given an aptitude test in May after missing months of school because of surgeries. He was unable to complete the exam because he was heavily medicated, Martens said.
"This gives them all the ammunition they need to put him in special classes," she told the Pilot. "The reason he's so behind in schoolwork is because of his surgeries, not because he can't complete the work."
Martens suspects the district is attempting to force her son to change schools because of her frequent complaints.
"We're going to keep fighting," Martens said. "[My son] loves his school and his friends and doesn't want to leave."