Lawyers Rule at SMMUSD

By Debra Shepherd

Our family has been a part of the Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District for seven years. I am the parent of a child in general education and a child who requires special education services. There are a lot of great things about this district. My youngest daughter had a dynamic teacher for fourth and fifth grade. My kids went to science camp and my youngest daughter was a member of the honor choir. The best thing about this school district is the fellowship that I have with other families. However, there is something about the SMMUSD that perplexes me. It’s the amount of litigation associated with special education.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the SMMUSD has in-house legal counsel. When a problem arises, there does not seem to be an ability to resolve the problem without input from the attorney. This is evidenced in an e-mail that I recently received from the director of Special Education Services. At the bottom of the page, my 43-year-old eyes see this itty bitty type. After I found my magnifying glass, I see that the itty bitty type is instructions from the lawyer.

Another concern is that the legal fees for Special Education in SMMUSD have increased by 153 percent since the last school year. Some might say that the legal costs are so high because of the “whiny” special ed parents. I say no. When children are denied needed services, the family has the option of filing a due process complaint, but I have yet to meet any families that are just itching to max out their credit cards or mortgage their homes just to prove a point to SMMUSD. Litigation is expensive. There are no clear winners when it comes to litigation. If SMMUSD loses, SMMUSD has to pay the legal expenses of their attorney, the family’s attorney, and provide the services that were denied the child anyway.

The only clear winners are the attorneys, because they are the only ones who are guaranteed to get something no matter the outcome of the case.

Unfortunately, in our school district in special education, it’s breaking down to a point where the kids with the best attorneys or advocates have the best IEPs (Individualized Educational Program). While having a great lawyer/agent is a plus in the NBA, the SMMUSD is a publicly-funded entity. The federal law requires that education be provided in a manner that’s “free and appropriate.” Creating an environment that forces families to obtain legal counsel is neither free nor appropriate.

Although it has been reported that the families in Malibu are primarily happy with the delivery of special education services, in Santa Monica, it’s as if we are in another school district. Despite the creation of the
Special Education PTA Committee, the Fall Forum and dispersing of the Parent Handbook, the IEP process remains muddled and adversarial. There is no staff policy regarding treating families with civility and respect.
There’s a significant amount of conflict that exists in SMMUSD and I don’t think that it will be fixed by an infusion of cash. Changing the culture of an adversarial environment is free.

One thought on “Lawyers Rule at SMMUSD”

  1. September 27th, 2014

    Dear Mr. Kane,

    I wanted to reach out to you and see if you can help. My daughter Farrah has been kicked out of her pre school class after six weeks of attendance and is being force to take a lessor class. The administration says there is no room in the class unless we pay $500 per month so she can stay.

    The purpose of this letter is to file a formal complaint against Director of Child Development Services, Alice Chung and her employee Maria Olmos in Santa Monica because of several discrepancies. This office is part of the Santa Monica Malibu school district. Also two other organizations, LAUP and first 5 can be included.

    Since this has started our daughter Farrah has been acting out and peeing her bed and has been winning and crying for her class.

    My name is Aaron Bearden, father of Farrah Bearden, who is in her 6th week of class at Pine Street, room 9, The Dream Room, with Teacher Dorie Meek.

    September 2nd, we were contacted by Maria Olmos who informed me there was some type of internal mistake with our daughter’s enrollment. She said that we needed to come in to the office and pay $500 to keep her in class. On September 4th we met with Alice Chung at her office who was very cold and was passing this mistake onto us. Neither her, or Maria or anyone in that office was accepting any blame.

    Alice Chung kept repeating that Farrah both missed her first day of school and that she started class in room 10 which of neither is correct. We requested she send a waiver to LAUP requesting Farrah stay in her class based on the fact that she had only attended classroom 9 since August 18th.

    Farrah, now in her 6th week of school, has already grown leaps and bounds from what she has experienced and learned from her class. Teacher Dorie and all her new friends is ALL she talks about. Taking her out now would be Devastating and break Farrah’s heart! Farrah who has never had any bed wetting problems has peed her bed 3 times this week because of this situation. Our little girl is obviously stressed and doesn’t understand why they want to take her away from her class. The decision will affect not only Farrah, but also the whole class. These kids have bonded and made friends and it would effect everyone if Farrah is taken out of that class.

    I understand there was some type of internal mistake made my Maria Olmos, (the new enrollment specialist) who started August 7th. This is why we don’t understand why Farrah has to suffer the consequences of the administration’s mistake.

    The decision by LAUP was based solely on the waiver sent by Alice Chung which unfortunately was not accurate with the facts leading to this problem.

    Alice Chung was only interested in saving face and placing all blame on us, Farrah’s parents. The result of this situation is Farrah pays the price of the mistake made by the district’s program and that there is no accountability for the administration that made the mistake. Farrah is truly the littlest victim with no voice.

    Friday, September 19th when Farrah was being dropped off to class, Farrah was met at the class door by Maria Olmos who was denying Farrah entry. Not only was Farrah’s cubbie removed but Chung and Maria were demanding teacher Dorie sign a form putting all blame onto her, telling her she would be fired if she didn’t.

    Those two have definitely stepped over the line. Maria told teacher Dorie that a decision was reached and that Farrah’s parents were indeed contacted which is false. We haven’t received an official letter, nor phone call nor an email on the subject.

    That administrative office has definitely scared a child, her parent greatly.

    It was humiliating to Farrah and her mom Veronic who had this situation unravel in front of children and parents. Dorie did escort Farrah against her will to class 10 because of blackmail. After class Farrah told us to please fight more for me so she could stay with Teacher Dori and her friends.

    Farrah belongs in class room #9 where she has attended from day one.

    Picture day at Pine St. was September 25th and Farrah had to take a class picture with a group of classmates she just met instead of the class she was with for six weeks. It was a horrible day for my family. Farrah cried to go into teacher Dorie’s class upon arrival and cried to see teacher Dorie afterwards.

    Friday September 26th child development services in Santa Monica has summoned teacher Dorie Meek to a hearing at 4pm to determine fault. I’m wondering what is the future for Farrah after determining the outcome of this hearing. The energy has gone away from Farrah the student to the grown ups involved. I don’t want anyone to forget why we are here. I can only hope that the grown ups and parties involved can come together and sponsor Farrah so she can remain in her class.

    We look forward to hearing from you and hope to come to a resolution soon. The damage has been done.

    Thank you so much for your consideration in this matter.


    Parents of Farrah Bearden
    Aaron and Veronica Frishman
    310 980 2017

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