Learning Curves

Fernando behind his case files: He has become the focus of a legal fight over education rights for the disabled.
Deron Neblett

It is not unusual to walk into a class and see Fernando with his head down on his desk. When not asleep or singing to himself inside the dark cave of his crossed arms, the Pasadena High School senior only nods at questions posed to him, sometimes answering with his limited English.

His classmates are preparing for the world of higher education and the job market. Fernando's only mission is to make it through the day. He avoids socializing too closely with other classmates who may tease him; he does not ask his teachers to look over his homework, because he has none. His self-imposed isolation comes from the effects of mental disabilities that make it difficult for him to remember or to coordinate the muscles used in speaking.

Since he was five years old, this has been Fernando's education in the Pasadena Independent School District, according to his mother, Alicia Perez. Now Fernando is 18, and if PISD has its way, he will be graduating soon, or at least will be handed a token piece of paper congratulating him for not dropping out.

Alicia Perez says such a "reward" would be an injustice to her son, because she believes the district neglected the special-education student. She accuses PISD of violating federal law by refusing to provide her Spanish-speaking son with a bilingual therapist, so he could learn like the English-speaking students suffering from the same disabilities.

She says the district ignores her complaints, her letters and her phone calls because she makes them the only way she knows how: in her native Spanish. To district educators, however, Perez has become fluent in another language, that of the law. For 12 years she has waged an on-again, off-again legal war with the district to try to force it to improve Fernando's educational opportunities.

District officials say they've done the best they can for him, hiring therapists and translators and more. The funds simply are not available to comply with all her demands, they counter. Perez, though, says they've spent more than $1 million in legal fees challenging her claims.

Now the district says Fernando must graduate by the end of this year, triggering a final round of legal action: Perez wants damages for the education she says her son was denied.

Alicia Perez was 19 when she emigrated to the Houston area from a small town in Chihuahua, Mexico, with her husband. She says it was a chance to pursue the American dream.

Fernando, the third-youngest of her four children, seemed normal until his toddler years. "I knew there was something wrong when he tried to speak but couldn't," says Perez. "He understood stood things like 'Come here' and 'Come to eat,' but he couldn't talk. My youngest daughter was already saying words at one year old, but Fernando wasn't speaking at two."

Alarmed, the Pasadena resident enrolled him at age three in PISD's Bailey Elementary, which had a special program for tots with speech impediments. The diagnosis did not distinguish between mental and physical disabilities, but Perez believed the program's therapy would solve his problems. She says her sister had a similar condition and learned to speak after daily sessions with a speech therapist in Mexico.

But after four years Fernando wasn't improving. The district transferred him to five schools in as many years. When the boy turned nine, a friend advised Perez to take him to New Mexico to see Hortencia Kayser, a neurological specialist. Kayser's diagnosis was severe verbal apraxia, trouble in coordinating speech muscles, and anomia, an inability to recall names or events. Kayser's recommendation was for him to be treated by a bilingual speech therapist.

Perez took the findings to PISD, which had been providing English-only therapy. The district refused to accept them, she says, and Perez refused to accept it as defeat.

Her campaign started slowly. The Mexican consulate's office wouldn't help because her son wasn't Mexican. Latino civil rights organizations told her they could take on only issues involving Hispanics as a group, and she had no knowledge of others in her situation at that time.

Perez started documenting her case in correspondence, tapes and meetings with the district, which grew increasingly acrimonious. Representatives objected to her using her native tongue.

"I can't read Spanish," a school official told Perez on a phone message machine. "I can't be able to respond to your letter. If you can write the letter in my native language, which is English, I will respond."

"There are so many Hispanics here; why can't they just translate it to [the official]?" says Perez. "When they write me letters, I have someone translate it for me."

Perez got an attorney and went to the Texas Education Agency for an administrative hearing, legally afforded to her as the parent of a special-education student. She gained a bilingual therapist for a period, but not one specialized in Fernando's disorder. The TEA sided with the district, finding that a translator coupled with a therapist would be reasonable assistance for the student.

Because of the litigation, PISD will not comment specifically on Fernando's case. But Kirk Lewis, a PISD spokesman, says the school district takes a look at every special-education student and tries to provide the best services possible. "Sometimes we get requests from parents beyond what we are able to provide," says Lewis. "We cannot go to the extremes, because we also have a responsibility to protect the taxpayers' money."

Lewis says there's a shortage of bilingual therapists for school districts nationwide, not just PISD. Lewis adds that PISD provides "more services that are fundamentally required" by the state of Texas for students with special education needs.

Mounds of legal documents reflect only the obvious: Fernando got Spanish speech therapy for two years of grade school. For seven years the help came only in English, and for the rest of his schooling, he has had the blend of a therapist and Spanish translator.

Meanwhile, Perez filed open records requests and learned, she says, that the legal fees for the district's defense total more than $1 million. The district has argued that to provide the added assistance would set a precedent that could end up costing PISD many times that amount. Attorney Daniel McCall, who is representing Perez, says PISD is sending a message to special-education parents that it is hopeless to challenge the district.

McCall says he has met several other Latino parents of special-education children who are locked in "a battle of silence" with school districts. "What usually happens is that school districts will go to parents with documents explaining them of their rights, but the documents are always in English. Now if you are an immigrant, you are intimidated concerning your status or whatever. What are you going to do?"

"What's happening here is that the district is conspiring to prevent Fernando from getting an education," says McCall. "The district clearly had within its means to provide Fernando with a proper education, and it didn't."

Perez says Fernando learned the alphabet and numbers only last year, but his grades in far more advanced classes have suddenly been changed upward, in what she believes is an effort by the district to show progress that really isn't there.

Fernando's mother is filing a new claim against the district, this time seeking unspecified damages against PISD for depriving him of a meaningful education. "Fernando is lost," says McCall. "He's gone. There is no way to regain those years."

As the legal debate swirls around him, Fernando seems oblivious to it all. He has chewed his fingernails to the quick and has been involved in disturbances after other students allegedly taunted him. "If no one bothers me," he says, "I bother no one." He has learned to raise his hand and say "bathroom," the word that allows him to leave a classroom and, his mother says, aimlessly wander the hallways on his way to a supposed diploma.

"Fernando isn't the one failing," McCall says. "It's the district failing Fernando."

Icess Fernandez contributed to this article.

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