For The Madera Tribune
Aaron J. Wright, author of “Daisy has Autism.”
Author’s note: Today’s column is Part II of a review of the book, “Daisy Has Autism,” by Aaron J. Wright, a graduate of the 1993 class of Madera High School. The story tells of the trials of Arthur and Annie Russell, parents of a daughter, Magdalena, who has autism. The Russells also have a dog, Daisy, that has autism. The book, using psuedonyms, describes the struggles the Russells have with their school district in the attempt to obtain “special education” for Magdalena. “Magda,” as the child is called, meanwhile, clings to the dog for friendship.
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“Magdalena Mae Russell does not meet California qualification criteria for special education.” Thus did the Yolano Union School District make its first conspiratorial move in its determination to deny special education services to Magda Russell, daughter of Arthur and Annie Russell.
Magda was the victim of autism, and the Russells knew that she would never make it in school without help. What they didn’t know was the extent to which their school district would go to save money by denying their daughter special education services.
The list of conspirators and co-conspirators is long and distinguished. It begins with Diego Braeburn, a YUSD counselor for special education, who issued the first denial of the Russell’s request for services based upon tests he administered to Magda.
Notwithstanding the fact that Arthur demonstrated that Braeburn’s assessment was patently flawed, the administrator held fast to his contention that Magda Russell was not in need of special education services. He claimed that she scored higher than 80 percent of her peers on a crucial language test. Never mind that he helped her with the answers.
When Arthur and Annie protested Braeburn’s conclusions, the conspirators took a second step. They scheduled a meeting between the Russells and Braeburn and Adam Del Norte, YUSD site administrator for special education. Del Norte was notorious for blocking kids from special education.
Del Norte confirmed Braeburn’s evaluation. He said that Magda’s needs could be met in regular classrooms; she didn’t need special education. In the same breath, he decried the use of private therapists in educational matters. At that point, the Russells asked for an independent evaluation, which moved them up one notch in the conspiracy.
In order to get an independent evaluation, the Russells were told they would first have to go to “Tier Three,” a trio of specialists headed by psychologist Alice Sutter.
In the Tier Three meeting, Sutter began by stating she wanted to test Magda for a disability other than autism, which made the Russells shake their heads in disbelief. Sutter went on to say that she would allow an independent evaluator, but he would have to attend a four-hour meeting, be interviewed by Sutter, and conduct classroom observations. The Russells hired Ben Seckel as their independent evaluator, and he tested Magda.
Seckel’s private evaluation showed that Magda definitely qualified for special education according to the state’s criteria. Her ability to express and understand language fell well below the required 7th percentile, which radically contradicted Braeburn’s conclusion. This moved the conspiracy to the next level, an Independent Education Plan (IEP)
When Arthur and Annie walked into the IEP meeting with Seckel, they found Del Norte and Sutter, joined by two teachers, a principal, and Jonathon Calaveras from Hire Psych, a private consulting firm. The district had obviously decided to engage its own independent evaluator.
Sutter took charge of the meeting and announced its purpose — to hear the results of an Independent Educational Evaluation.
The lion’s share of the meeting was spent on abundant self-congratulations by the school district. By the time Seckel got a chance to talk, he only had 10 minutes left before he had to leave for another appointment.
After Ben’s departure, Calaveras took the floor. When he attacked Seckel’s report, it became clear that the real purpose of the meeting had been to lay a trap for Arthur and Annie. Hire Psych was YUSD’s hired gun. It was also clear that the district had given Magda’s records, including Seckel’s report, to Hire Psych without their consent. In addition to that, Sutter had violated board policy by engaging Hire Psych; only the Triumvirate — the district’s top three administrators — could hire a consultant without board approval. That’s when the Russells went to a lawyer.
Attorney Ruby Reyes told Arthur and Annie that their case was the “Worst example of a school district trying to block a child from special education that I have ever seen.” That’s when they went to see the triumvirate.
The meeting with YUSD’s top three administrators went very fast. They introduced the Russells to Mary Ellen Lake who was going to “investigate” their allegations thoroughly. In the meantime, Lake reminded them that she was “investigating for the school district, not you.”
Shortly thereafter, the district called another meeting, this time including Hire Psych’s Calaveras and a Mr. Rangpur, YUSD’s lawyer. Not able to afford an attorney, the Russells filed a complaint with the California Department of Education.
The conspiracy wound more tightly at the next school board meeting when trustees officially hired Hire Psych, weeks after Sutter had engaged the outside firm, on the same day Ben Seckel submitted his report to her.
One more nail was pounded into the Russell’s coffin when the district agreed to provide Magda with an aide — for one month — and that aide was employed by Hire Psych, not the district!
With that, everything drew to a close. The district’s investigator white-washed her client, and the CDE, relying only on statements from the district, found that YUSD was in compliance.
Understanding that he was fighting against a stacked deck, Arthur found some resolution with an in-depth look at the innards of the Internet. There he found the motivation for the conspiracy. YUSD’s website stated that concern over the rise in its general fund contributions to special education was forcing it to limit the number of students placed in the program.
Further confirmation of the conspiracy came when Arthur found out that it was the district’s own attorney, Rangpur, who recommended that Sutter employ Hire Psych in the beginning — AT THE SAME TIME THE RUSSELS’ INDEPENDENT EVALUATOR, SECKEL, SUBMITTED HIS REPORT.
The Russells are no longer living in Davis. Physical assaults on Magda constituted the last straw. They are now living in the Bay Area, and she is being helped.
Daisy died, but Magda has a new dog; they have fun together, and it helps her forget her nightmare at Putah Creek Elementary.