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Outrage After Special Education Students Forced To Sort Trash


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As television cameras rolled, Jurupa Valley, Calif. school officials publicly apologized earlier this week to parents of special education students and promised a thorough review of the functional skills program that had them dig through trash for recyclables to earn money.

“I personally apologize to any students who may have been humiliated,” Jurupa Unified School District Superintendent Elliott Duchon said at an emotional school board meeting that saw outraged parents berate administrators for a program they said stigmatized their children. “Our teachers care very much about the students they teach.”

School board members echoed Duchon’s words and added that they didn’t know the Patriot High School program included an activity that had special education students sort through campus trash bins. They said they learned of the issue when complaints were posted on Facebook and then reported in the news media.

Officials have suspended the recycling activity and are reviewing the overall functional skills program, Duchon said.

Duchon said Tuesday that “this is standard curriculum” for the program’s students, who routinely collected recyclables such as cans and bottles.

“Up to last week, there has not been one complaint,” he said.

Ann Vessy, Riverside County Office of Education’s executive director of special education, has said such projects are common, though some schools do it different ways.

The functional skills program is carefully tailored for special education students and is part of their individualized education programs, Duchon said. It teaches general life skills such as how to do a budget, purchase groceries and cook meals.

At the meeting, parents blasted district officials for fostering a practice they said humiliated special education students and exposed them to germs.

“It is disgusting,” said Carmen Wells, who aired her complaints to the media after learning her son with autism was digging through trash in the hot sun while wearing heavy gloves and an apron on his first day as a Patriot High freshman.

Arianna Lizarraga, a former special education student, sobbed as she recounted her feelings while digging through trash.

“I’ve been there and it’s not easy,” she said.

Lizarraga’s mother, Rhonelda Lizarraga, said her daughter hadn’t told her about her experience until news surfaced about the Patriot High incident last week.

“When she told me, it made me angry because I couldn’t protect her,” Rhonelda Lizarraga said.

School board member Brian Schafer said he could sympathize with the parents’ complaints because he is the parent of a former special education student.

“Digging through trash is not a life skill,” Schafer said. “It’s unhealthy.”

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Comments (28 Responses)

  1. soricobob says:

    Wow, talk about throwback! Reminds me of the 60s and 70s, when I was younger, less experienced and fellow staff members tried to get me to believe the crap about “it’s good for them” or “it build character”. I used to get in a lot of trouble (my Principal tried to get me fired) for challenging the status quo.

  2. Denise Baker says:

    The article doesn’t specify whether other kids at the school were required to participate in a similar activity. If not, then this is ridiculous and a wasted opportunity. I could see this as an opportunity to present a valuable lesson in caring for the environment, understanding what happens to objects after they are thrown away, and the importance of being a responsible consumer. If the germs issue could be dealt with, this type of activity could benefit all students as a truly hands-on exercise in responsibility. HOWEVER, if this is an activity that only children in the “special education” program are exposed to, then it is clearly discriminatory. I’m trying to imagine how this activity would go over if it were done in a “gifted” classroom, a “behavioral” classroom, or a “mainstream” classroom – each on their own would have very different connotations and interpretations from student, parent, and societal perspectives and few would be positive. On the other hand, if done across the board (for the entire student body) a broader meaning and clarity of purpose could be established to make an activity like this valuable.

  3. Tresa says:

    my son’s school district felt that having special needs students clean up the cafeteria after regular ed students every day was life skills. seriously, these regular ed students need to learn how to clean their own messes. . I taught my son to clean up after himself. you would have to have seen the pig sty the cafeteria is after a lunch. I was a waitress for years and years. I loved it. my offense is not in service work, but in the school district forcing special needs students clean up for free after others who have no respect for others property

  4. Bebe says:

    “The functional skills program is carefully tailored for special education students and is part of their individualized education programs, Duchon said. It teaches general life skills such as how to do a budget, purchase groceries and cook meals.”

    I’d like to know how digging in trash for recyclables fits into the description Mr. Duchon gave. This is not even a job skill that they are teaching. How demeaning! The valuable time wasted on these young adults digging through trash needs to be compensated with appropriate / meaningful activities related to life and job skills. Also, I am sure this had to hurt these students’ self-esteem. I don’t know how that can ever be compensated! Some people have no place in education. Those who thought this was appropriate for these students to do should have to do the same thing for an entire year. I bet they’d look at it in a whole new light. I just cannot wrap a brain cell around this! Despicable!!!!!!

  5. Debra says:

    Yikes! I think about those like my child who also have food allergies digging through old food and food products. And for students to dig through glass?! Yeah, there is a skill I would rather my child not learn!

  6. Lisa L says:

    So many many horror stories to echo. Tresa below describes exactly the program at my son’s high school (Beaverton School District in Oregon). While regular ed kids had all kinds of work experience options, special ed kids were relegated to what my son called “cleaning” jobs. (By the way this continued in the Community Transition Program). Washing football uniforms, cleaning up the pig sty cafeteria, gathering trash. When I suggested the cafeteria should be cleaned daily by rotations of all students, I was told that was impossible. When my son started complaining about the work, I got a letter from his “work experience” teacher that he had a bad attitude. When my husband started chanting, “Hoffa in the Cafe (pronounced Coffa),” I knew I needed my son to ask if there were other work experience activities for him. A meeting was called and he was told he could wander the halls with a walkie talkie and report any suspicious activity – this school had 2,500 students with police officers roaming the hall. My son balked, clearly scared of the prospect of confrontations. He returned to the cafeteria. He learned a valuable life lesson – shut your mouth kid. (I’m being sarcastic). I filed a complaint with the Justice Dept local office in Seattle complaining about the disparity in work experiences between “special” and “regular” students and also about the disparity in “pay” among the “special” students in the cafeteria. My son was at the top of the pay scale ($1 per hour) because he did not require an aide. Some of his friends were only making 30 cents per hour because they had aides and even though the aides were not doing the work, the kids still made only 30 cents per hour. (BTW – the pay was completely cut after that – so much for teaching the life skill of managing money from a paycheck). The Justice Dept. said this was all legal. This was 8 short years ago. Thank goodness people are beginning to recognize the rights of DD people to receive minimum wage and enter the same work experience programs as “regular” kids, but we still have a long way to go.

  7. katy says:

    Seems to me the school district is triaing them how to survive if they are homeless and without any income.
    If Mr. Duchon believes it is okay to treat Special Educations students this way, I think he should be fired ASAP with no compensation.

  8. Cynthia says:

    According to other sources, it was only the kids in the special education programs who were made to dig recyclables out of the trash.

  9. AutismMom says:

    On reading this story, I said to my husband, where in the world is sifting through trash considered a life-skills and functional skills to be taught as an approved program in high school curriculum? My husband said looks like they were planning the special needs children to grow up to be homeless. OR else why would such a ‘skill’ be included in most if not all High School Special Ed programs may I ask? Good for the mother for standing up for her son. After reading the story, wouldn’t it be wonderful if families would write to their Boards requesting detailed description of the functional/life skills curriculum. And when DDS centers defend not providing any functional or life skills training to their consumers because such training is claimed to be provided by these wonderful functional skills special ed classrooms, wouldn’t be great if DDS centers provided the success stories of trash collection?

  10. Cheri says:

    Picking up, sorting trash used to be a reprimanded or punishment. Now it’s a functional skill! Who knew?!

  11. Lynn says:

    Of course the headline on this article high-lights the problem: “forced to sort trash”. Not sure how it goes in the schools, but in the adult world, people get to choose their job. And some people choose to work in recycling. So although I agree that people shouldn’t be forced to do that type of work, we need to be careful not to talk about people’s chosen vocation negatively. Recycling, janitorial work, and other dirty jobs are necessary and honorable work. I appreciate those that are willing to fill that niche and do the dirty work for the rest of us – disabled or not. Let’s honor their contribution to society, not make them feel like it’s second-class work.

  12. george says:

    if this is a life skill then all the students should be doing it. and I suggest that all teachers and administrators be included. and whomever thought this was a good idea should be fired so they can go on the streets and do it for real to survive.

  13. old mom says:

    BTW guess what attitudes it teaches the other “regular” kids? We know, don’t we!

  14. Stephanie Mefford says:

    This makes me wonder how many other parents have no idea what their children are doing at school all day. I go in and observe our daughter’s school setting several times during the school year. I am always surprised that I seem to be one of the only ones requesting this right. I also requested to see instructional materials being used with our child, which is written into School Board policy in our district. They had no idea how to comply with my request because no one had ever asked for it.

  15. AmandaI says:

    This article doesn’t surprise me. Most Adult Group/Enclave job activities involve ID adults involve cleaning tables, taking out trash and other janitorial activities. The sad thing about this article is that some teacher thought that the skill of trash picking would be an asset to these kids. And unfortunately that teacher may be right. How many homeless are the remnants of our special ed programs? Too many. The discussion should be about how are these individuals going to integrate into society in a meaningful way. It is amazing that for years the school districts across the country have been promoting inclusion. Especially in elementary school yet as the children grow older and they’re abilities grow further apart from their typical peers, the inclusion idea and activities die. They are placed in these programs that separates them from their typical classmates and society. And then some teacher decides that all these individuals can amount to is being part of the trash pickers of our society because they don’t have a meaningful substitution. We might as well have a caste system and call our disabled “the undesirables”.

  16. Liz says:

    It never occurred to me that dumpster diving was a life skill — but given the economy and budget cuts
    directed at special ed/SSI/IHSS (in California), then perhaps it is a life skill. Wonder if it was written
    specifically into the IEPs, and was this an opportunity to be integrated with the “normals”?
    Years ago Tennessee required SSI recipients/disabled to sort trash as part of the state’s contribution to
    their welfare.
    So how far have we come in the process? Perhaps it would be best served if the superintendent or
    even the board of education members could work alongside the students, then perhaps they would
    be provided adequate safety equipment and lecture on current OSHA standards for such jobs.
    Many might learn skills as how to avoid needle pricks, broken glass, spoiled food, yellow jacket stings from cans of pop, etc. Write that into the IEPS. One could only hope someone would take the district to court
    for failing to provide an “EQUAL” education. Give that superintendent a copy of Brown v. Board of Education, and an attached sticky that separate is not equal, and a reminder that this, too, applies to
    special education.

    the IEPs.

  17. kevin says:

    How about teaching kids to place recycling in a separate container so nobody has to dig through rancid trash? There’s nothing good about what they were told to do.

  18. Autism Parent says:

    I am told that the Regional centers (RCs) recommend their consumers to be in Special Ed High School programs in which collecting trash from school yards, cafeterias, etc is taught routinely as an essential life skill. In case you do not know, RCs are nonprofit private corporations that contract with the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to provide/coordinate services + supports for individuals with developmental disabilities throughout California. Individuals must have a diagnosis to become a DDS consumer. Most referrals to RCs come from Doctors. Often the consumers have multiple medical conditions. RCs defer most services to health insurance companies claiming those are medically necessary for the health of their consumers. So does this mean that DDS approves of its medically fragile population to sift through trash left on school yards, cafeterias and such, in the heat or cold, discarded by other students/staff/teachers, often more able and healthier, because it is an essential life skill? This is not against the profession of collecting trash. On the contrary, society would not thrive without garbage collectors and janitors and we should be thankful to those who choose that profession. This is about the ethics of the organizations who unilaterally deem that the most fragile of our population would be doing the most difficult of chores with no choice in deciding if it is their goal in life to collect trash left behind by their more able brothers and sisters irregardless to whether this exposure to germs and allergens would worsen their already compromised health and immune system. And what cost benefit does this ‘essential’ training brings to our society – how many tax dollars have we saved yet?

  19. Rosella A Alm says:

    Sorting trash of any kind is a dangerous occupation for anyone. There may be used needles in it, and the sorter may be exposed to Hepatitis B or C, or AIDS.

    There used to be an honorable profession called worm grunting too. A person, usually a man hammered a piece of iron into the wet ground then he would saw across it with another piece of iron, and worms would come up above ground. The worms were sold for fish bait. An easy way to make a living, not one I would want for my son though. In 19th century England being what the higher classes called a Mudlark was a child relegated to collecting bits of bones in the sewer outflows, again, not a profession that I would want for my son.

  20. Molly says:

    How about letting parents teach life skills at home and requiring high schools to educate to each student’s potential instead of copping out to life skills? On reflection, these circumstances are probably occurring at my daughter’s school in this same region as I was informed that “she likes to sweep.” I will be delving into this myself.

  21. Jean Woodard says:

    Life skills for students with disabilities and life skills for those without disability should be the same. My 6 year old with Down syndrome helps me with laundry at home. I know 16 year olds without disabilities that don’t do their own laundry. Ideally, life skills should be taught by parents. Unfortunately, not all parents have life skills of their own. So schools do need to provide life skills classes for some kids, based on parental involvement. However, ask a homeless person if they would benefit from a class sorting garbage. Most likely, they will say that it doe not require training, and schools teaching respect and compassion would go much further.

  22. Sandra Suggests.... says:

    A true valuable environmental skill that could be taught would be to start a legitimate recycling program where proper recycling containers could be placed around the school for paper, cans, bottles, etc. This life-planet lesson should be shared by all…we must all start sorting and recycling at home and in the community…if we did this, then there should not be any paper, bottles, or cans in the trash. There could be many lessons to establishing a recycling center in the school that would include procuring and setting up proper containers, collection, and transport to an actual recycling center. If you have ever been to a recycling center, it is such an eye-opener that it really drives home the amount of excessive waste and burden that we are putting on our planet. The money obtained from this venture could be pulled into having some sort of school party or special event for helping the environment.

  23. Catvocate says:

    In Wisconsin this Spring a Special Education teacher gave toilet brushes and cleaner to her graduating students, “so they would be ready for life”. She had been giving this sweet gift for years. Finally a parent went straight to the press and called the district on it. Well you can imagine. It was all just a simple misunderstanding. Yeah right not to those kids. Why is it that the knuckle heads in charge make these sick degrading choices for people with disabilities? I suppose it is good that every student with a disability gets put in their place by those who believe that they are better. I am so sick of this culture. These kids aren’t gong to get much respect in group homes, workshops, day programs and so on. This is so typical but a good learning experience for the future. No you can’t get a degree but you can work at MacDonald’s. No you can’t really work at Best Buy but you can clean the toilets there. Get used to it kids your whole future is going to be chock full of disrespect and dehumanizing experiences. I apologize for the bitter sarcasm but I live this every day and it hurts and makes me angry. WHY? Why do they hate us so much?

  24. ivanova smith says:

    what teenage kid would want to sort through the trash…..I don’t think many….if students without disability not doing it then students with special needs shouldn’t have to do it.

  25. marcia tewell says:

    Not surprised that the special education director said that it is usual in functional classrooms to deal with recycled materials – paper, metals, shredding etc. is all a national pastime in the disability community. I am amazed that functional curriculum still exist. To teach grocery shopping or cooking anywhere but a students own neighborhood is just absurd. This is to a group of people who supposedly have a hard time generalizing. I know of a student that “practiced” riding the bus, but it was not in her neighborhood, but in that of the “functional” classroom. When will we change the day-wasting programs? They are high cost and low use.

  26. Bessie says:

    Shame, shame, shame! I am glad that those parents spoke up. All of us need to shout when we see this sort of nonsense. They are consistently gearing special needs children toward a life of degradation. There is nothing wrong with recycling but what teen would want to dig through trash in school. This is not a skill. When are we going to command that our schools provide real support for our students with disabilities and start giving them a real education. We, all of us, want them to be a part of our society. We want them to have good jobs like everyone else. Many of these school administrators have no clue about educating our children. They should be held accountable. This upsets me greatly.

  27. NancyL says:

    While I agree that strictly speaking, “digging through the trash is not a life skill,” but outside of the unfortunate and discriminatory way this task was assigned, digging through the trash, like others have commented, can be an excellent learning opportunity to create awareness for the environment; how our waste can be used and not a bad way to make some pocket money. When looking for free moving boxes, I was not too proud to engage in “dumpster diving” myself and have scavenged good usable things from the trash. So no shame there. And many people collect recyclables and make a lot of money doing it. But, wow, how short-sighted to have ONLY the special ed students assigned to it. Even if for only the “political correctness” factor alone, you would have thought the teachers in charge would have known better. Too bad. Handled properly (with gloves/aprons) and having ALL of the students participate, it could have been seen as a very positive task. And if not a “life skill” exactly, a “recycle rescue” would present an opportunity to put community inclusion into practice and understand that “we’re all in this together.” Maybe some “sensitivity training” is due?

  28. Chris says:

    Not trying to be insensitive. What is the big deal? Is the outrage that they were the only kids that were made to do this as part of their class, and those without disabilities were not? Just trying to figure this out. The job skill learned is doing a job and doing it well. Not glamorous, but it is a job. I am not disabled and this is my job at this time. It is not my favorite, but it helps pay the bills. If my son, also without disability were asked to do this as part of a class like this, it would not be a big deal to me.

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