DEL MAR — Danielle Roybal remembers when she requested a Special Circumstance Instructional Assistance evaluation for her special-needs son to identify resources to help him succeed in the Del Mar Union School District, and the district refused.
In 2019, when she requested the evaluation with the expectation of being granted a one-on-one aide — a necessity for her previously-nonverbal son who had recently joined the general education population at Oceanaire Elementary and had gone missing before — Roybal instead received a letter called a “prior written notice,” refusing an evaluation and stating that the requested services would not be provided.
“Next thing I know, I receive a letter with all this legal jargon called a ‘prior written notice,’ which stated they were denying an evaluation for my child,” Roybal. “They weren’t denying an aide but the actual evaluation for an aide. In other words, they wouldn’t even see if we could be eligible. When you receive a prior written notice, you’re kind of at a standstill.”
This would start an expensive, multiyear battle with the district to obtain necessary services for her son, which involved seeking legal representation and bringing her own advocate into Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meetings to educate district staff about special education law. She would receive several more prior written notices over the years.
There are several Del Mar Union parents like Roybal who have had services denied for their children with developmental and intellectual disabilities — often with little explanation — despite the district’s nearly $1 million in restricted special education funding for the 2021-22 fiscal year, along with millions more in the General Fund. Many families fear retaliation against them or their children if they speak out.
District administrators have remained largely silent in response to a tidal wave of parents calling for change and accountability, with parents reporting a lack of response from school board members or administrators when they reach out.
All of this, Roybal said, adds to the existing stress of being a parent of a child with special needs.
“When a child first gets diagnosed, a parent goes through several phases. It’s grief because you want your kid to be like everybody else and grow up with no limitations,” Roybal said. “You mourn the fact that they’re gonna have trouble in life, and you almost want to take that burden off of them, and you wish it would be you instead of them.”
Some parents have pursued legal action, with the district being the subject of at least 20 lawsuits related to special education matters over the years as well as at least a dozen complaints with the Special Education Division of the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
Matthew Storey, a San Diego civil rights and special education attorney who has represented several Del Mar Union parents in cases against the district, said the issues in Del Mar Union are unfortunately present in many other districts as well. But in Del Mar, however, more parents are willing to speak up.
“A lot of these issues are by no means only in Del Mar. I think the parents in Del Mar are doing a good job of making their voices heard,” Storey said. “I think that’s been something that’s been missing for a long time.”
Most recently, more than 100 community members crowded into the district board room on April 27 to request an independent investigation into the district’s special education practices as well as the hostile climate experienced by staff.
Already-frustrated parents grew outraged when an unofficial staff report entitled, “A Collaborative Document from DMUSD Special Education Staff,” was presented to the district board by the Del Mar California Teachers Association and circulated in the community.
The document outlines allegations of illegal and unethical practices related to special education, fear of retaliation among an overworked staff and lack of transparency when it comes to staff dismissals.
The document, which has not been independently verified by The Coast News, specifically describes how administrators have instructed special education staff to change students’ disability categories to reclassify them into frequently-changing program criteria; restricted speech and language pathologists from sending evaluation plans for additional suspected disability categories that could require other services, and instructed school psychologists to falsify data related to students’ level of need following evaluations.
“Currently, there is no external audit of our special education department and practices to ensure the district is acting in the best interest of students. Instead, litigation/due process is affecting the way administration is directing staff to provide and recommend services. Litigation has increased since this new administration has been in place,” the document states.
Jenni Huh, the district’s student services executive director, did not respond to specific inquiries about the allegations in the report and denied claims from staff that the district has launched an internal investigation into special education teachers and service providers as a result of its release.
For Del Mar Union parents, however, the document seems to confirm concerns they have shared over the years.
Parent Gabrielle Rudkin described how her son with Down syndrome was automatically placed in a class away from general education students, well before any IEP meetings took place to determine what environment would be best for him.
“No child should have to earn their way into the general education class by performing or being able to do what all the other children can do,” Rudkin said. “[I am] concerned that the Del Mar Union School District does not see us as one team, but rather as district versus parents and as a negotiation they must win.”
Storey said he has also seen these issues come up in previous litigation.
“A lot of times, it seems to me that decisions are made before the parents get in the IEP meeting,” Storey said. “An interesting thing that has happened in a number of our cases is, it seems that administrators are telling school staff what to do, as far as what services or placements they can provide.”
Storey added that several parents have described being told by a teacher that their student could benefit from certain services, but that the teacher did not want anyone in the district to know they had suggested that out of fear for their jobs.
The cost of frequent litigation to the district has elicited pushback from parents who have been denied services for their children, allegedly due to budget issues. In March alone, the district paid over $355,000 to three different law firms, purchase orders show.
At the April 27 meeting, the district board announced they had reached compromise agreements in two Office of Administrative Hearing complaints filed in late 2021 and early 2022, and one complaint remains active.
The majority of OAH complaints have been resolved this way, with the exception of two cases in 2011 and 2018 that were decided by a judge. While the district’s IEP plans were determined to be sufficient in both cases, the district was also ordered to reimburse the family up to $19,500 for a mental assessment conducted outside the district and both cognitive-behavioral and social skills therapy for their child in the 2018 case.
Along with parent-initiated claims, the district has also filed its own complaints against parents with the Office of Administrative Hearings, a practice permitted under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when parents will not agree to the terms offered in an IEP.
Huh said this is not the same as initiating a lawsuit, and claimed the district avoids doing so “unless absolutely necessary.”
“We work in earnest to avoid these situations by creating collaborative, student-focused discussions. However, when those discussions fail, any district that receives federal funding is legally obligated to initiate due process on behalf of the child,” Huh said.
The district-initiated complaint process is meant to be a last-resort solution, according to Storey. Yet, he has seen Del Mar officials file these complaints against parents within a week of releasing the IEP.
“It is very rarely used, and in my opinion, almost always a terrible idea. These are the parents of children who have disabilities, and in what I’ve seen, the district can do far better to support these parents,” Storey said. “It’s an unfortunate position to take because parents almost always know their kid better than the districts do.”
In at least one case, the district also sued a parent of a special education child in San Diego County Superior Court and was granted a restraining order against the individual, CBS8 reported.
Del Mar Union staff have also raised the alarm about the high turnover of special education staff and dismissals of crucial positions seemingly without reason. Between February and April, the district closed out 14 special education aide, behavior interventionist and mental health positions and brought on seven new hires in these categories.
In February, the district board approved a recommendation to discontinue employment for Carmel Del Mar education specialist Dylan Jones for the upcoming school year, along with a list of six full-time equivalent staff roles in the areas of behavior support intervention and occupational therapy.
Upon finding out about the decision in March, Jones said she was informed by her site principal Julie Lerner that she was no longer a “good fit,” despite a lack of past negative reviews of her work and an impressive track record of facilitating achievement for special education students.
“My number was brought to the board in February without my knowledge and no way to defend myself. It was shrouded in darkness. I didn’t find out about my non-reelect until March 7,” Jones said, referencing her employee number that was brought before the board. “I am more than a number.”
Special education parents were discouraged by the district’s reduction in staff that is so sorely needed to support their children, especially after being denied requests for teaching aides and other resources.
Like Roybal, parent Maniza Mohamedalli has been repeatedly denied an aide for her son with special needs and described investing money into an advocate and attorney to ensure the district meets his basic needs. She fears that limiting the existing number of staff will only make things worse.
“These positions are necessary when teachers are already juggling IEP meetings or managing student behaviors, and without the help of enough aides, it becomes nearly impossible for them to help our children. I have seen how overworked the therapists, teachers and aides are already, and have seen how this affects my child,” Mohamedalli told the district board in March.
As of April 27, the district board had not committed to pursuing a third-party audit of the district’s administration in regards to special education. However, board members Gee Wah Mok and Scott Wooden did specifically express interest in having a third-party review of the general staff climate.
A 2019 survey of district staff recently circulated in the community found that over 80% of staff did not believe that district administration cared about their emotional wellbeing nor did they feel respected as professionals.
While Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district relies on feedback gathered from individual school sites, some board members said they would like to see an assessment from an impartial group.
“You have to have that feedback coming from a critical viewpoint. You really have to have a professional group that comes in,” Wooden said. “It’s also important to take that information and make the right decision on it. You’ve got to be able to really understand what the data is telling you and not go down the wrong path.”