At 15 months, Tony Cutino acts like a lot of toddlers, with his propensity to shake keys. But the sound of jingling is brand new to him.
Like his 3-year-old sister Bella, Tony was born deaf. Instead of learning sign language, though, the children both received cochlear implants, small devices that connect electrodes to the auditory nerve and allow the user to hear.
Tony’s implants got turned on in May and his mom, Kimberly Cutino, says he’s picking up words quickly.
But Cutino’s been battling the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District over which therapies are right for her kids. Based on the complex legal jargon of special-ed rules for public schools, she’s asking the district to cover the $650-a-month cost for Bella’s specialist.
MPUSD’s specialists, Cutino says, aren’t trained in teaching kids with cochlear implants to listen and speak. “People who believe in sign language do not like children getting cochlear implants,” she says, “[because] they’re more a part of mainstream society.”
Cutino is one of a half-dozen MPUSD moms of children with disabilities who meet weekly to strategize about getting more specialized therapies in the district – or getting the district to cover outside services, a long shot.
Under state law, MPUSD is required to prepare an individualized education plan (IEP) for each of its 1,140 special-ed students, mapping out a ratio of mainstream classroom time to therapeutic one-on-ones.
If parents and the district disagree about what belongs in these plans, the county Special Education Local Plan Area offers alternative dispute resolution. SELPA processes about 10 to 20 complaints a year, just a fraction of some 6,600 special-ed students countywide.
Cutino is in talks with MPUSD officials through SELPA’s alternative dispute resolution process. If the parties don’t come to an agreement, Cutino is considering legal action. “Should Bella not receive her needed services through a qualified provider, further action will have to be taken,” she wrote in an Aug. 28 letter to the district board.
MPUSD and SELPA officials declined to comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality.
The State Department of Education was unable to provide figures on how many complaints they receive directly from MPUSD parents, and declined to provide copies of investigation documents; the Weekly has filed a Public Records Act request to get the reports.
In one complaint to the state, closed June 1, the district was ordered to provide an additional 60 minutes of missed speech therapy for Lori Arnaldo’s daughter, who has a condition called speech apraxia that makes it difficult for the child to translate thoughts into speech.
But on the other three, and more serious, allegations in Arnaldo’s complaint, the Department of Education found MPUSD to be in compliance when it came to overall programming for speech and language intervention services.
Arnaldo says she had to give up full-time work to care for her autistic son, and when MPUSD wouldn’t cover the cost of a non-district preschool for her daughter, she and her husband short-sold their home.
“I had no choice but to put her there,” Arnaldo says. “It was [MPUSD’s] doing because they were so negligent.”
SELPA Executive Director Carol Lankford says the district has no obligation to use a vendor selected by a parent unless the parent can establish the program the school offers is not appropriate.
“Unfortunately, it often pits parents against districts because the districts have the funds,” Lankford says. “Parents, of course, want what they believe to be the best program.”
MPUSD Superintendent Marilyn Shepherd says public schools simply can’t muster the funds for that. “School districts can’t provide the very, very best. School districts are able to provide the baseline,” she says. “We have a lot of parents who are very happy, but we’re not always going to make everybody happy.”
That’s despite a $16.4 million special-ed annual budget, which averages nearly $14,500 per student – nearly three times a typical student’s allocation.
Arnaldo’s daughter goes to Avalon Preschool in Monterey, which integrates typical and special-ed kids and charges $50-$1,000 per month depending on the level of individualized support needed. Avalon contracts with Spreckels, P.G. and Carmel school districts, which don’t offer as much in-house therapy as MPUSD.
One parent, Jennifer Zeidberg, had a typical daughter and an autistic son enrolled at Avalon, which she feels MPUSD should’ve covered. But she couldn’t resolve differences with the district over where to place her son.
Zeidberg’s solution was to move to Pacific Grove. Her son now attends Robert Down Elementary and goes to art, library and science classes with typical kids instead of being relegated to a special-ed classroom all day long.
“The people here care about my son in a way MPUSD could never understand,” she says.