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Short Days for Disabled Pupils Ruled Illegal : Education: District officials deny that students were shortchanged, and say safety was main reason for different schedules. Starting this fall, all children will have same hours.

August 19, 1993|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — Authorities have ruled that La Canada High School violated federal law by providing severely disabled students with shorter school days than other students.

"There was a violation of law that was found," said John E. Palomino, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in San Francisco.

Students from La Canada, Glendale and Burbank unified school districts attend special education classes at La Canada High.

District officials denied the allegation, which was brought to the government's attention by Downey education activist Jeanne M. Corbett. They cited safety factors for the practice and argued that shorter days--including educational lunch periods--still amounted to the same number of daily instructional minutes given to students without disabilities.

But in the end, federal investigators found last month that, during the 1992-93 school year, La Canada High violated a regulation that requires an equal length of school day for mentally or physically disabled students so they can have equal opportunity and access to extracurricular activities. Palomino sent the federal finding to Corbett, in a six-page letter, which she brought to the attention of The Times.

During the period in question, La Canada High provided two special education classes--from 7:50 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., respectively. The regular school schedule began at 7:50 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m.

School officials said student safety was a main reason for shortening the day of severely disabled students. Leaving earlier kept those students from getting caught in the after-school rush and parking lot traffic, said La Canada Unified Supt. Jim Davis.

"They avoided that traffic and also didn't have to get up that early" to go to school, he said.

Now that their schedules will be the same as everyone else's, Davis said, "We'll continue to do the supervision that we (usually) try to do and hope that people will be careful. . . . We'll do the best in our power to maintain safety for all children."

District officials considered the average 30-minute lunch period as part of the day's education because instructors were on hand to help teach the severely disabled students how to eat, if necessary, Davis said.

But federal investigators determined that no educational basis was documented to allow students with severe disabilities to receive an hour to an hour and 10 minutes less school time per day than those enrolled in the regular education program at La Canada.

Depending on the grade levels, severely disabled students from the three school districts are sent to La Canada High School or Palmcrest or La Canada elementary campuses for special education services. No complaints have been filed against the elementary schools.

Twenty-one special education students--three from Burbank, seven from Glendale and one from La Canada Flintridge--attended 1,700-student La Canada High in the 1992-93 school year.

Since the federal investigation, all three districts have acknowledged the discrimination violation and sent state and federal officials letters agreeing to an equal-length school day beginning this fall for all students at La Canada High.

No further action, punitive or otherwise, was imposed by federal authorities, who could have taken away funding from the districts if they chose to ignore last month's decision, officials said.

Glendale, Burbank and La Canada school district officials have defended the quality of the special education program, saying they only interpreted the law differently from federal authorities.

"I don't think there was any intent to discriminate on the part of La Canada, or anybody else," said Emma Lou Pennington, director of special education for the region. "I think what they were doing was in the best interest of the youngsters."

"We felt that we were meeting the intent of the law," Davis said.

In an effort to comply with the federal decision, Davis explained, district buses will have to pick up students in Glendale and Burbank earlier each morning. Severely disabled students will also be escorted to their buses after school for their safety.

Shelly Bruehl, chairwoman of a parents advisory committee for district special education programs, said parents understand La Canada High's position for shortening the school day.

"No parent that I know of ever complained about the length of the day," Bruehl said. "As far as I know, Jeanne (Corbett) did this on her own."

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