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Mall incident irks special ed instructor

Teacher says autistic student was asked to leave Montebello Town Center after sitting on the floor.

June 06, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

An incident in which an autistic man was told by a mall security guard that he was barred from sitting on the floor at Montebello Town Center has drawn the ire of a special education instructor who says the disabled man was treated unfairly because he was unable to use a chair in the food court.

The instructor and mall officials have offered starkly contrasting versions of Thursday's episode.

According to teacher Galust Yenokyan, security guards asked the 20-year-old autistic man to leave the mall after he sat on the floor.

Mall officials, however, said the student was told that it was not safe for him or other mall guests to sit on the floor, and was never told he had to leave.

"It's just a matter of saying you shouldn't be on the floor right here. We didn't ask him to leave the shopping mall at all," said Tish Cabezas, a marketing manager for Montebello Town Center.

Classes from A.B. Perez School, a special education elementary and secondary school in East Los Angeles, visit the mall annually on field trips to give students a fun day out, said Yenokyan, who has taught at the school for seven years. Yenokyan said he had informed the mall earlier this week that eight of his students would be visiting Thursday.

The class arrived at 9:30 a.m. and spent the morning checking out shops, Yenokyan said.

About 11:30 a.m., the group went to the food court for lunch, he said.

"This one student of mine . . . has this autistic behavior where he can't sit on a chair. He usually sits on the floor," Yenokyan said. "That's his behavior. That's his disability, and there's a federal law, the disability act, that fights for his right to have his space in this world."

Yenokyan said three security officials approached the man on the floor and demanded that he leave.

The instructor said that he and the student were escorted out and that they then waited outside for 90 minutes while his other students finished lunch at the food court with classroom assistants and parent volunteers.

"I didn't see anywhere written that you can't sit on the floor in the mall," Yenokyan said.

Montebello Police Lt. Mike Higashi said an officer planning to eat lunch in the food court was asked by a mall staffer to speak to the teacher but had no part in the mall's decision.

"Apparently there were two people [watching], some bystanders, who interpreted it wrong, and went to the mall and complained," Higashi said. But "the police didn't do anything. They were going there to eat. We were innocent bystanders."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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