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.

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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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