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Inquiry Finds Disabled Get Less Bilingual Instruction : Education: Report alleges discrimination in county's special schools and calls for correcting problems such as counting mute students as English speakers, even if Spanish is spoken in their homes.


SOUTHEAST AREA — The Los Angeles County Office of Education has discriminated against disabled children who speak limited English by failing to provide adequate testing and academic programs for them, federal investigators have concluded.

County education officials agreed to correct deficiencies. A spokesman said the programs needed only small, technical adjustments.

The report by the federal Office for Civil Rights wraps up an investigation of various complaints from as far back as December, 1989, about county programs for the disabled.

The Downey-based county education office oversees programs for about 6,800 disabled students from 64 county school systems and is the main provider of special education services for severely disabled students in Los Angeles County.

The county office manages schools for disabled children at more than 100 sites. The programs serve children who are blind, deaf, autistic or otherwise mentally or physically impaired. Last year, county programs for the disabled served 116 children from Bellflower Unified, 433 from Compton Unified, 86 from Downey Unified, 222 from Lynwood Unified and 236 from Montebello Unified.

About 1,300 of these students have limited English skills, county officials said.

In a June 30 report, investigators concluded that these disabled students received less help in their native language than students who are not disabled.

Under county procedures, for example, children who could not speak at all were classified as fluent English speakers, regardless of what language the child's family spoke at home, said John E. Palomino, a regional director with the Office for Civil Rights.

As a result, many of these students probably received no help in another language--even if the student finally learned to speak Spanish and spoke only Spanish, Palomino said.

Investigators cited similar concerns about the way the county handled children who spoke some English. Once again, teachers and administrators did not sufficiently consider whether students needed to be tested or taught in a foreign language.

By law, all children are entitled to receive special assistance to overcome a language barrier.

The federal report found that county programs also had lower standards for deciding when a disabled student had become fluent in English. The practice effectively denied disabled students extra tutoring or other help that a non-disabled student would have received.

"Common sense tells you that these are the children who probably need more help than the average child, who doesn't have to struggle quite as hard," said Jeanne Corbett, an advocate for the disabled who first raised the issue with the Office for Civil Rights.

"I got sick and tired of walking into county classrooms and seeing disabled children, who obviously had no idea what was going on, working with monolingual English-speaking staff," Corbett said. "And there was no attempt being made to translate. That situation may not have been universal, but I saw enough of it to make me very concerned."

Other alleged deficiencies in the county programs included:

- A shortage of bilingual teachers or translators to teach or test students.

- Inefficient use of available bilingual staff. They reportedly did not work with as many limited English-speaking students as possible.

- Lack of a detailed plan, theory or method for determining the best program for disabled students whose first language is not English.

- Student psychological evaluations that did not take language barriers into account.

- Assignment of students to schools and programs without considering students' limited background in English.

County education office consultant Frank Tocco denied that a serious problem has existed.

"We're not talking gross violations here," Tocco said. "It's technical differences.

"We have a process in place that's reasonable for meeting the needs of bilingual, bicultural individuals. This investigation provides additional input as far as refining the whole process. . . . We're meeting the needs of the children in a reasonable manner."

The federal report covers the last outstanding issue raised in a series of complaints by Corbett and others. Among previously disclosed findings, the Office for Civil Rights had concluded that some disabled students received less classroom instruction time than other students and some disabled students were unnecessarily segregated from the non-disabled. As with other investigations, the Office for Civil Rights negotiated a settlement with the county education office before releasing its findings. The report includes the county education office's plan for correcting the alleged shortcomings in its programs. If the county office had contested the findings, the agency could have been stripped of all federal funding.

In essence, the county office has agreed to be more careful in testing limited English speakers and in selecting programs for them. In addition, the county has agreed to provide bilingual staff or a translator as necessary.

"From our point of view, the investigations have had widespread impact," said Palomino, the civil rights administrator. "The law is being complied with now. Before, it wasn't."

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