Thursday, September 17, 2015

A school where kids with special needs are not allowed. Really.

Please note that del Sol's program is not for children with learning, behavioral, or social/emotional difficulties, special needs, or for children that have been identified by parents, educators, or professionals as having too much difficulty, or would likely have difficulty, with 'fitting in' to traditional school environments and expectations....

The above is part of the description of the "del Sol experience," a private alternative school for grades PK-12 located in Manhattan Beach, California. Ironically, the first line of the page reads, "Del Sol is alive with a caring, supportive, 'possibilities' environment." Not so much. In fact, their no-special-needs stance is blatant and wholesale discrimination that violates the law.

The wonderful Michele Shusterman, mom of a daughter with cerebral palsy and a disability advocate, shared this outrage on her CP Daily Living Facebook page, and plans on writing the Department of Justice.

Oh, and just in case parents of kids with special needs don't get the message, the Admissions Information page contains this "Important Note" at the end of the page: "Except for cases where special educational needs exist due to learning problems/disabilities, enrolling one child and not others is not in keeping with our mission." How downright open-minded of them!

The discrimination seems to be ongoing at del Sol. As an anonymous parent noted in a comment on dated June 13, 2014, "This school will not even consider applications from children with disabilities, including autism, mobility issues, etc. The claim that it will fundamentally alter the program allows it to skirt ADA compliance. At the same time, this discrimination is just wrong."

Are we living in 1950 or 2015?!

The school is tiny, and seems to have less than 50 students—but that is no excuse. Private schools (excluding religions ones) are considered a public entity, as defined by The Americans with Disabilities Act. Although some schools use the "undue burden" loophole to get out of inclusion, "Claiming undue burden does not receive a public entity of all obligation," points out the nonprofit PACER (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights). "They must still provide program access through means that would not result in a fundamental alteration or undue financial or administrative burden."

In any case, what's particularly shocking about del Sol is how unabashedly the school displays its discrimination. They present their no-special-needs policy matter of factly—the same way other schools might state that, say, students are not allowed to bring foods containing nuts.

What kind of message are they sending students and their parents about kids with special needs? What kind of message are they sending anyone who reads or hears about their policies?

Although it's rare for a school to be this openly discriminatory, Michele and I both hear stories all the time about parents of kids with special needs struggling to get their kids enrolled, involved and included. Max has long been in a dedicated school for kids with special needs, but we've encountered resistance getting him into camps and programs (including this maddening incident).

Last year, Michele pulled her daughter out of a private school that refused to install (or even let her and her husband pay for) a child-height bathroom grab bar. "I still can't believe it happened," says Michele. "She was there for three years! The principal had this idea—or tried to hide behind it—that a grab bar that meets ADA requirements for adults meant that they were in compliance with the law. She said if they allowed this exception for my child, they would have to do it for others. What the hell was I supposed to do with this level of ignorance?! She was adamant she was correct because their building contractor told them so. I said, 'Even if this was accurate, this approaching and thinking is so wrong on so many levels.'"

After exhaustive attempts to deal with the school board, Michele and her husband decided the school was no place for their child. When the principal noted that they "loved" her daughter, recalls Michele, "I responded, 'If you even cared in the least about my child, you would be concerned about her safety, well-being and comfort in meeting on of the most basic human needs.'"

This week the news came out that the Obama administration would be issuing guidelines to states, school districts and early childhood providers urging them to include preschoolers in mainstream early learning programs. This is groundbreaking, and heartening to those of us who have kids with special needs. But the truth is that no Department of Education initiative is going to change people with the del Sol attitude.

Sometimes, parents have the law behind us. Sometimes, in the best interest of our children, we have to stop fighting the good fight and move on to other options or solutions. But at the very least, we owe it to our kids—and ones like them—to call people on their exclusionary, discriminatory and just plain wrong mindsets about children with special needs.

If you would like to share your thoughts on del Sol's exclusionary policy with the school, the principal is Richard Sharp and his email is


On September 20, I and several people who emailed Rick Sharp received the following response from him in regard to the exclusionary policies on the school website: 

I regret that you have been distressed by the content of our website. I also regret that that information is ON our site. It is very old information which is not consistent with our practices. I didn't even remember it was there until my daughter pointed it out to me at the beginning of this school year.

I would like you to know that we presently have 6 children with diagnosed ADHD, two with diagnosed anxiety disorders, two with ODD diagnosis, one with apraxia and several with dyslexia. In the last 5 years we have also had a child with bi-polar disorder who frequently attacked other children and teachers physically (she was with us for 3 years before her parents and the school agreed that she needed more help than we were able to give), and one with profound hearing loss (who withdrew after we used microphones on her 3 teachers, but the environment had too much outside noise for them to be effective). As you can see, the paragraph you are siting is not reflective of our policies.

It is my intention to remove the paragraph as soon as I can figure out how to do it. We are a small school. I have to do as much of the work as I can.

Image source: Flickr/Rick Shinozaki


  1. This is very sad and just wrong. Hard to believe that such attitudes are openly displayed as 'policy', even sadder that obviously many don't see anything wrong with that. Of course it's not fair to kids with special needs but it also isn't fair to those considered 'typical' or without special needs. I believe inclusion is a large part about teaching 'typical' kids about special needs and how they can adapt in order to help. These kids are being denied that very important opportunity. No winners at del Sol that's for sure.

    1. The PPCD classroom as my boys' school is in the same building as my youngest's pre-k class, and their recess time overlaps for about ten minutes or so. My son came home Monday talking about a "bad baby", whom I quickly learned was a boy in the PPCD class. The boys is non-verbal and he loves to chase kids and push them down (thus the "bad baby" moniker), which he thinks is a game as the kids laugh about it. My son was talking as if he had been mean to the boy, and I was quick to straighten him out on that (intolerance of others, especially those with special needs, is a no no in our house). I asked him if the boy (A) had any friends. My son said that no, because A was mean. I asked him if he thought A might be mean because he had no friends. He didn't reply. I then asked if he thought he could try to be nice to A (who has Down Syndrome), and we thought of ways to include him. Son told me last night that he and A played tag and hide-and-seek. I hope it is true, I really do. I want our boys to be loving and accepting of everyone, no matter their abilities or disabilities. It did warm my heart when I found A's picture in last year's year book, and my son kept referring to him as a cute boy. :D

  2. As an attorney who takes ADA cases on behalf of children with special needs, I probably wouldn't touch this case with a 10 foot pole. I've seen very few instances where school can make any type of fundamental alteration argument. But deSol clearly has a pretty good argument here. Id rather focus time and effort in making changes in schools that have no defense and are still excluding children

    1. So what is their "good" argument—that they're a small school? As noted above, that doesn't exclude a school from including children with special needs. That said, as a parent I sure wouldn't want to send my kid to a school this closed-minded.

    2. The argument is that the entire curriculum is based upon very limited adult assistance guidance and interference and hat meeting the needs of children who need extra assistance and guidance would fundamentally alter the program.

    3. Wow! I am shocked to hear an attorney says he/she takes cases on behalf of children with special needs takes such an extreme stance on this particular discussion. "You probably wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole?" Really? Come on now, that's a bit much don't you think? It is absolutely unlawful to take have a blanket "no disabilities" policy. The laws of society are meant to reflect our collective values. The intention of ADA is to move away from philosophies of exclusion that literally kept our children and adults with disabilities locked away from society. Even if I accepted the argument you propose, I am unable to find anything on their website (where Constructivism is explained and this policy stated) that mentions "limited adult guidance and interference" which leads me to suspect you have some sort of connection to the school? Even if there is something mentioned or you don't have any connection here, this concept is not incompatible with every child who has some type of special need! You empower the individual from where they are and help them to move further along from their. What's even more disturbing to me is that their open discrimination policy is completely unapologetic! If anything this sounds much like the empowering Montessori method which ironically, and to the surprise of many educators and lay people, was developed in part by her work with children with disabilities. It has often been misinterpreted and used as an elitist approach to educating children when it's meant to be anything but this. My daughter attends a Montessori school and it's been a beautiful experience for her and the rest of the children. And just in case you missed it the Department of Justice does not consider schools similar in philosophy to be above ADA law:

    4. I am well aware of the Montessori school settlement. It involved a student who needed classroom adjustment to deal with a disability that caused a greater likelihood of falls. From what I understand Montessori schools have successfully defended on "fundamental alteration" ground the exclusion of students who needed one on one aids (paid for by parents) but this was different and no "fundamental alteration' argument could be made.

      I am in NO WAY connected with what appears to be tiny mom and pop operation with the deSol school. My comments come as someone who must look at the law and decide if a claim can be made.

      Personally I would never send my children to a school like this. Inclusion of children with special needs has greatly added to their own educational experiences.

  3. Their policy is openly discriminatory. But, unfortunately, other private schools devoted to early education can be just as exclusive, though insidiously so. Our son attended a private preschool in NY that accepted our full tuition, but continuously excluded and isolated our child from their curriculum and his peers. We were told he couldn't participate in music class, school pageants, holiday parades, etc. because these things were "overly stimulating." We were also instructed to pick him up 15 minutes early each day so teachers wouldn't be overextended during dismissal. We were new at the 'special needs' thing, and quietly tolerated all of these outrages because we were simply grateful that the school had agreed to take our kid. Schools are permitted to cling to segregationist policies because parents aren't aware of their rights, regarding their children's education. The more awareness there is, the less likely these things will be tolerated or permitted in future.

  4. I fear the effect banning inclusion will have on the students. They will learn intolerance before they even have a choice. The school just comes off to me as a plain bad school too. The lack of inclusion suggests that it forces conformity on students and molding them into "ideal" people. (You can tell the general character of a school from their inclusion programs.) I mostly fear for the students of del Sol because they are forced to practice exclusion; they don't even have a choice in the matter. It's one thing to choose exclusion with acceptance being the right alternative, but it's another to force it onto children at a young age and not give them a choice.

  5. You kn ow what"s missing? Thousands of kids with disabilit iesa in front of the school demanding they change their policies. You know what where are the protesting "DISABLED LIVES MATTER?" Wheree is the media? Why isan't there the equvilant of a Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson?? I have said it before I'll keep saying I'd honestly mrather be a person of color in America than have a disability

  6. My question is what happens if a child starts showing signs of/is diagnosed with something they don't accept after they have been accepted into the program? Are they then expelled just because they might have gotten into some sort of accident, developed some sort of medical need, or started struggling in some other way? (I realize that I'm being vague. Clearly, any person's needs and the reasons for them can vary).

    I am physically disabled (so I guess that would disqualify me on its own), but I also have a learning disability that went undiagnosed for sixteen years because I did so well in most subject areas that my difficulties went mostly unnoticed for a long time. (The full story is complicated, but my point is that needs can arise at any time, and I can't imagine this school would handle those well.)

  7. Not only is this behavior completely illegal, it is downright harmful not only to students with disablities but also those without. Because of this policy, the students are inadvertanly taught that people with disablities are "bad". Being taught this at a young age may lead to discriminatory behaviors as adults.

  8. I used to work with kids with Autism at the EEU in Seattle now called the Haring Center. I am also the parent of two children with special medical needs one of whom has CP and hydrocephalus. I think the Haring Center sums up why an inclusive community is beneficial to all. Including kids with learning differences and special needs is not a favor to them but helpful for all because we all live in a society that has diversity and we need tolerance and acceptance for all. From the Haring Center web site: "Haring Center staff are guided by the vision of an inclusive world in which all children are recognized for what they can do. In this world, children with a variety of developmental disabilities and other differences grow and learn alongside their typically developing peers, seeing barriers disappear as they reach their full potential.

    Inclusion is an action, not a label. Inclusion isn't something that is achieved and sustained, but a practice that needs to be re-dedicated every day. To describe a community as inclusive is to point out that every member in it strives not only to feel valued and supported, but strives to help all other members feel the same way: in an inclusive community everyone should feel that they have the opportunity to contribute. Inclusion is about authentic community membership, ongoing relationships, and meaningful participation." Thanks Ellen and Michele Shusterman for keeping the spotlight on discrimination and the need for change. Also I emailed the principal and my email didn't go through...maybe he blocked comments today!

  9. This is illegal,discriminatory and just plain wrong! How could someone so openly say that! I fear what the children in that school will think about those with disabilities when they come out of school having had no experience with them. Luckily my school district like most happens to have an inclusion program.

    1. Same here. It's one thing to choose exclusion for yourself, but it's another to force it onto children. I fear for their future.

  10. I take the complete opposite stand here. My oldest is a 3e child. My youngest-I don't even know how many exceptions he has. They have both gone through public schools due to lack of money for private schools. I don't feel inclusion has been good for them. Their needs have not been met by their teachers, despite my youngest's IEP. I still get comments that he doesn't "try hard enough". And I agree with the teachers that the time they spend on him is time they can't spend teaching the other kids.
    Instead of lowering Everybody's schooling, we should have elementary and middle schools that can cope with kids with all kinds of learning issues, and put neurotypical, average kids in their own school. I think this would also remove the exposure to bullying so many non-typical kids experience. To me, this is more important than "learning tolerance" at a young age. Save it for high school, where kids are freer to take classes they can excel in, and where they are judged differently than young children judge.

  11. Good for you for taking the non-politically correct stance! I completely agree, although on this blog apparently, dissenting opinions aren't tolerated very well. Thank you for stating the truth, and what so many of us are afraid to say, for fear of being politically incorrect.


Thanks for sharing!

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