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Attorney Charles LiMandri speaks at a press conference Tuesday afternoon on behalf of San Pasqual Academy.
Attorney Charles LiMandri speaks at a press conference Tuesday afternoon on behalf of residents, alumni and staff of San Pasqual Academy. Photo by Tigist Layne
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San Pasqual Academy stakeholders sue county, state over school’s impending shutdown

ESCONDIDO – Residents, alumni and staff of San Pasqual Academy filed suit against the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency and California Department of Social Services on Tuesday for trying to shut down the foster youth high school.

The school, which has been a residential home for dependents of the Juvenile Court system for 20 years, is the first of its kind in the nation.

Back in March, the state had ordered the county to close the academy by Oct. 1 after changes to state law sought to reduce the use of congregate care facilities in favor of home placement.

Last month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors entered into a new agreement with the state that will allow the academy to stay open until June 2022 if the county agrees to stop sending foster kids there.

However, the academy’s residents, alumni and staff say that’s not enough.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Charles LiMandri and Paul Jonna of LiMandri & Jonna LLP, claims “the action to shut down San Pasqual Academy, is a violation of Equal Protection Guarantees of the California Constitution and of the Foster Youth Bill of Rights.

It also alleges that California’s Continuum of Care Reform Act, passed in 2015, mandates that San Diego and California continue operations at San Pasqual Academy. That legislation abolishes the use of group homes for foster youth in many cases, but it contains a specific exemption and mandate for the continued operation of San Pasqual Academy as a lawful and appropriate placement for foster youth.

The lawsuit names Kimberly Johnson, director of the California Department of Social Services; the Department of Social Services; Nick Macchione, director of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency; and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency as the defendants.

The plaintiffs named are individual alumni, former employees, residents, etc.

Cecilia Blea, who graduated from San Pasqual Academy in 2006, is one of those plaintiffs.

“Without San Pasqual Academy, it is unlikely I would have ever achieved a college degree,” shared Blea. “The academy’s caring and nurturing environment allowed me to succeed, and my children are blessed to experience that same healthy environment. I am so grateful to be able to give back to San Pasqual Academy during our time here. If that is taken away from us—and all the others who have benefitted from this program—that would be devastating.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, attorneys LiMadri and Jonna shared data showing the academy’s success rate including that the average graduation rate for all youth is recorded as 79% and for foster youth, it’s only 45%. By contrast, youth attending the San Pasqual Academy have achieved a 92% graduation rate for those in the program through their 18th birthday.

Other various stakeholders, including alumni and staff, shared anecdotes of the positive work the academy has done.

“San Pasqual Academy is what family in the foster care system looks like and should look like,” said Tia Moore, director of San Pasqual Academy. “We are a foster home care level program that supports sibling sets, education, family, reunification, intergenerational relationships… we support showing up for them, even when they age out of the system. San Pasqual Academy is more than congregate care; we are a community striving to rebuild the definition of family.”

Ultimately, the San Pasqual Academy stakeholders are seeking that the court will order California’s Department of Social Services to continue licensing and funding San Pasqual Academy as a home for foster youth.

Sarah Sweeney, communications officer for the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, sent a statement about the lawsuit via email.

“The County is continuing to explore options for the San Pasqual Academy campus that focus on ways to support foster youth. At the same time, we are working diligently to ensure a smooth, trauma-informed transition toward a future, where as many youths as possible live in a loving and supportive environment while having access to services that help them grow and thrive,” the statement read.