San Dieguito Union High School District has never quite figured out where to put its adult transition program.

The program helps 18- to 22-year-old students with disabilities transition from school life to adulthood, and all districts in the state are required to provide one. In San Dieguito, it’s moved from a leased space in a Carlsbad business park, to Mira Costa Community College to La Costa Canyon High School in the northeastern reaches of the district.

Its latest home was supposed to be at Solana Beach’s Earl Warren Middle School, but after the campus’ remodel left the district facing accusations of discrimination against students with disabilities, the program will be relocated once again.

Many parents of students with disabilities have had fairly good experiences in the district, but they don’t get the sense the district cares very much about the transition program. Some even say their kids reverse the gains they made before entering the program.

Those tensions finally came to a head this summer, when the district unveiled Earl Warren’s reconstruction. In June, parents of the transitioning students discovered that the middle school’s state-of-the-art facilities – large classrooms with three white boards, advanced technology and floor-to-ceiling windows to capture sunlight – wouldn’t be available to the adults in transition. They’d be in two portable classrooms with one window, one whiteboard and one bathroom each.

“If kids were being put in there because of their race or language skills or religions, there would be outrage,” said Lucile Lynch, a parent of a student the program.

For many of the parents, the stark difference in the facilities for the general middle school students and the adult students with disabilities not only felt like blatant discrimination, but was a visceral reminder that they have to fight just to make sure schools meet their kids’ basic needs.

“To see that they can take that time with Earl Warren, but they don’t even take time to build new facilities for us, it makes me feel like us special ed kids aren’t important to them,” said student James Walker, who is just starting the program to finish the last few requirements he has left for a diploma after finishing his senior year at Torrey Pines High School.

“It’s about so much more than the portables,” said Andrea Moriarty, a parent whose child recently finished the program. “What the renovation and remodel of the campus (did) is just magnify the disregard for those students. It’s never been a great program.”

On top of the facilities issue, the program is poised to more than double its enrollment this year. Last year there were roughly 20 students, with two teachers and about 10 aides. This year, the district is expecting 47 students in the program.

The district staffed for the enrollment increase, adding a third teacher to the program, but hadn’t accounted for the spike in students in providing facilities for the program, leaving the nearly 50 students, three teachers and several aides in the two portables.

“That’s been my biggest disappointment in how we’ve handled this internally – is not recognizing that we had that increase in enrollment and we managed to accommodate it through staffing, but that somehow didn’t translate into realizing we also needed to make adjustments in facilities for that program,” said San Dieguito Superintendent Eric Dill. “I’m still not sure where the disconnect was there.”

Disability Rights California, a statewide advocacy group, sent the district a letter expressing concern it was violating federal and state laws guaranteeing equal treatment of students with disabilities. It also had concerns over the health and safety of the students in the facilities.

The district came up with a temporary solution. The program will move to facilities in La Costa Canyon High School come September. If parents and students aren’t happy there, the district will incorporate the program into new facilities currently under construction at Sunset High School the following year.

The district is also starting a special education task force to try to prevent issues moving forward.

“I know that some promises were made for involvement on the planning of that classroom and we didn’t deliver on that promise, and I think that’s led to a lot of the concerns,” Dill said at a parent meeting at the end of July. “There were promises of more involvement and we didn’t do that and I’m sorry for that. …There’s no way we can hide from this now.”

But it took a while to get there.

During the remodel and upgrades to Earl Warren, Dill said the district discussed where to put the program, but couldn’t come up with a good, permanent solution.

The hardest part was that the post-high school students don’t have peer groups among the other district students – and especially not at a middle school like Earl Warren, where the students are almost a decade younger than the transitioning adult students. But Earl Warren had a number of traits that made it a good fit – like space and a central location.

It’s also closer to retail, commercial space and public transit than most district schools. That’s important for adult transition programs, which are meant to help students become more self-sufficient, teaching skills like going grocery shopping, paying bills and gaining work experience. At Earl Warren, the program could teach students how to use public transit, go shopping and, for higher-functioning students, set up work opportunities nearby.

But parents say they were led to believe the school’s remodel would create a permanent space for the program. In fact, some say they were told as recently as May that they’d be getting state-of-the-art facilities as well. Instead, they got the portable classrooms – which were purchased in May – and placed on the periphery of the campus.

Plans submitted to the Coastal Commission in 2016 show the adult transition program was already pegged for the space. Back then, the district thought the space could accommodate up to four portable classrooms, but issues discovered in construction meant there was only room for two, limiting the district if enrollment swelled.

“We have a lot of verbal reassurances that don’t pan out,” said Lynch, a parent of a student in the program, at a July parent meeting.

Dill said the district specially ordered the portable classrooms for the transition program.

“With special ed, we build spaces and it depends year to year what the needs are,” he said.

That means the portables were customized with a kitchen, which is often a necessary component of transitional programs meant to teach practical life skills.

They also come with something called a “sensory” or “calming” room – a small, locked room where students can be placed to calm them down.

The calming rooms in particular alarmed parents and were raised in the letter from Disability Rights California.

“We have received reports that the Adult Transition Program classrooms will include lockable ‘calming’ rooms,” read the letter. “We have questions regarding SDUHSD’s intended use for these ‘calming’ rooms. As the protection and advocacy agency for California, Disability Rights California has an obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not subjected to abuse or neglect. It is well established that seclusion is a traumatic and dangerous practice and California law prohibits the use of locked seclusion as an emergency behavioral intervention.”

Last week, the district announced it would have three classrooms in La Costa Canyon High School ready for the program by the start of the school year.

Dill also said he has been working to revamp the special education team at the district to address some of the other issues with the program, like the curriculum, which many parents said either did nothing for their kids or actually set them back on previous progress.

But even the district’s reactive problem-solving this summer continues to upset parents. To them, it is an example of how their kids are often treated as less important.

“I think you have to flat-out admit that the mentality of our district for the last 10 years has been that [the adult transition program] is just an afterthought,” said parent Mary Beyer at a July meeting. “We’ve just been put to the side and never given the same consideration as other students, whether it’s classrooms or curriculum.”

The parents want accountability.

“Someone made the decision to not give us equal facilities,” said Joanne Stress, whose daughter has been in the transition program for two years, at a July school board meeting. “Someone chose not to give us the high ceilings afforded to younger, smaller middle school students. Someone chose to give our classroom one small white board instead of three side-by-side boards. Someone chose to give us locking, windowless calming rooms, despite the use of seclusion rooms having triggered national debates and lawsuits.”

As for the portables left on Earl Warren’s campus, the district has found a use for at least one of them already – the READI program will go there. That program is an alternative to suspension for students with alcohol or drug abuse issues. Kids will be sent there as punishment.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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