Abigail Taylor was stunned. A special education student moved through the Franklin High School campus with a trash can strapped to his wheelchair, headed to the dumpster to empty it while classmates watched. Other special needs students picked up garbage.
The sight has stayed with Taylor since her freshman year at the Elk Grove school.
In the three years since, Taylor has seen special education students pick up trash on school grounds with hand-held trash grabbers, wash windows and pick out recyclables as part of their sixth-period Independent Living Skills class. The students wear matching blue polo shirts when they are cleaning outdoors, distinguishing them from other students on campus.
She calls the activities “demeaning.”
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“I don’t want to see this going on for another year and have freshmen coming and saying, ‘Oh, this is how Franklin treats its special education students,’” said Taylor, 17, who will start her senior year this fall.
In May, she collected 362 signatures from students and a handful of parents and teachers declaring that the practices set a bad example for how to treat individuals with special needs. The petition says that the practice runs afoul of the district’s mission of “providing a learning community that challenges all students to realize their greatest potential.”
The signatories want the school and the Elk Grove Unified School District to change their practices. A meeting is planned for August.
Special education advocates and attorneys contacted by The Sacramento Bee saw problems with the practices Taylor described. Special education students, who may already have a fragile self-image, can feel stigmatized by being asked to perform work viewed by some students as punishment, they said. The matching blue uniforms can add to the stigma, said an attorney for Disability Rights California.
“How come they all need to learn the same skills?” asked Taymour Ravandi, senior attorney for Disability Rights California.
“Let’s assume there is a need for one child to learn to pick up trash,” he said. In that case, he suggested, there are other approaches. “Put that as a goal for that kid and assign an aide who would accompany this child in situations where the child is not identified with this task, so he learns how to do it on an individual basis in a confidential setting. I don’t accept their statement that just because they are getting skills development, it’s OK for them to pick up trash around schools.”
Part of me says, ‘Oh, your job is picking up garbage.’ But he doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as, ‘I have this job and I’m being paid to do it.’
Cid Van Koersel, program director for Warmline Family Resource Center in Sacramento, speaking about her son
Administrators said Franklin High doesn’t need special education students for campus cleanup. It has a full custodial staff. Rather, they said, the students are learning skills of daily living, such as cleaning indoors and outdoors, sorting for recycling, cleaning around tables and vacuuming – activities that instill soft skills such as how to follow rules, adhere to a schedule, complete tasks and accept criticism.
Students rotate to other duties in the library, cafeteria or office and participate in student-run microbusinesses, they said. About 85 percent of the day includes functional academics such as reading, writing, math concepts and handling money that will help students be independent after they leave school.
“They are not responsible for cleaning up a campus that has 2,800 students on it. They’re not the cleanup crew,” said Kit D’Arezzo, program specialist for the district’s Independent Living Skills classes. “They are using this to learn a variety of other skills, and it’s not the same students every day and every year.”
Similar programs exist, with some variations, at all nine comprehensive high schools in the district, she said.
Cid Van Koersel, program director for the federally funded Warmline Family Resource Center in Sacramento, which helps train parents of special-needs children, said she has mixed feelings about the cleanup activities for Franklin High’s Independent Living Skills students.
Her son, Antwon Talford, now 26, attended Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento. The Sacramento City Unified School District reports it has not asked groups of students from its Independent Living Skills classes to perform cleanup duties.
“My son is working for a person who has a microenterprise of recycling,” Van Koersel said. “Part of me says, ‘Oh, your job is picking up garbage.’ But he doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as, ‘I have this job and I’m being paid to do it.’ I think that, globally, we have to look at both sides.”
Talford works at Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Roseville. He also performs cleanup duties at Lord’s Gym in Roseville in exchange for use of the facilities and volunteers at a food closet.
The Sacramento City Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified school districts do not as a rule ask their special education students to pick up trash on school grounds as part of work-based learning, although there may be individual exceptions, according to their spokesmen.
“It’s not our practice to have students doing campus cleanup,” said Daniel Thigpen, spokesman for Folsom Cordova. “However, if during the process of working with a student in transition they express interest in a career path of custodial work, we might do a job shadow with somebody from our maintenance facilities.”
Elk Grove Unified, one of California’s largest school districts with about 63,000 students, has nearly 7,000 special education students ranging in age from 3 to 22.
At Franklin, about 160 students have special needs, and about 18 of those were enrolled last year in the high school’s Independent Living Skills class, D’Arezzo said. Students were invited to pick up refuse as part of their skills development rotation.
Three received minimum wage to work with school’s custodian as part of the state’s WorkAbility program, which is designed to help students with disabilities transition into the job market, according to Xanthi Pinkerton, spokeswoman for the Elk Grove district. The other Independent Living Skills students who clean outside at Franklin wear WorkAbility shirts but do not receive pay and do not participate in the state program.
The shirts allow the school to identify the students “as being part of the program so we know who they belong to,” Pinkerton said. The shirts are imprinted with the words, “Trainee/EGUSD/WorkAbility Works.” The shirts serve to make the students “feel it’s something important that they’re doing,” she said.
But Taylor, in a research essay, describes the work as punishment and said other students on occasion leave trash on tables “for the students in the ILS class to clean up.”
Richard Ruderman, a partner in the Sacramento-based law firm Ruderman & Knox, which focuses on special education law, said it is unfair to single out one group of students for trash pickup.
The special-needs students, Ruderman said, “are doing a task that others are going to perceive, and they, themselves, may perceive, is often punishment. That’s a concern. That raises a host of things, like you’re punishing a kid just because they’re disabled. That sends a red flag to me of discrimination.”
Daniel Shaw, another attorney for Ruderman & Knox, said Elk Grove Unified is not alone in using cleanup to help students transition to life after school.
“We do see it in other districts and other parts of the state. Every school is different in how they develop their transition program, but I do believe it’s a major problem,” Shaw said. “I believe one of the biggest fears of any parent with a child of special needs is, ‘What is going to happen after school? What’s going to happen to my child?’ We’re miserably failing at preparing special-needs students for life.”
D’Arezzo said that understanding the Franklin High program requires “a broader understanding” of its purpose, “beyond the microtask of cleaning up.”
They are not responsible for cleaning up a campus that has 2,800 students on it. They’re not the cleanup crew.
Kit D’Arezzo, program specialist for Elk Grove Unified’s Independent Living Skills classes
“If I were to take you on a tour of campuses, you’d see a variety of tasks that the teachers have crafted to present to students so they are able to gain confidence about their skills, so they can show their peers what they’re capable of doing. It’s not about picking up.”
Ravandi of Disability Rights California said there is a way to remove the stigma from a cleanup project: Combine it with a school activity for everyone, he said.
Otherwise, “it flies in the face of individualization ... of nondiscrimination law and our own morality of not stigmatizing people,” he said. “I think there are so many other ways to teach a skill that doesn’t stigmatize that child among his friends.”
If the work were handed to students of a certain ethnicity or to girls, Ravandi said, “we would all see the problem.”
Taylor said she took action this year after reflecting on her missions to Guatemala and Nicaragua organized by BRIGHT Children International, a group focused on helping children with special needs. BRIGHT stands for Bringing Resources to Inspire Growth, Healing and Transformation.
“I saw what was going on with their special-needs kids, and the kids at Franklin were being treated as badly as the kids in Guatemala,” Taylor said. “It finally struck me to do something about it.”