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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Sonja Sharp

LA Unified School District passes controversial deaf education plan despite strong opposition

LOS ANGELES — Cheers rang out and hands waved in celebration as the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted unanimously to support a controversial overhaul of the district's deaf education program late Tuesday evening.

"We are trying to say to all deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their families that we must move mountains to make sure that their needs are addressed," said the resolution's sponsor, board member Jackie Goldberg, who cast her "yes" vote in American Sign Language.

"We must not miss a critical window in the years before kindergarten to promote acquiring language, whether it's spoken, signed or both."

The vote capped weeks of controversy and close to three hours of public debate over Resolution 029-21/22, which will create a new deaf and hard-of-hearing education department within the district's special education program.

The vote also will pull American Sign Language into the district's dual-language and bilingual program. But by far the most controversial change will be to make ASL-English bilingual education the districtwide standard for early intervention with deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Supporters say the move addresses the district's urgent need for language equity. Opponents decry it as a violation of their parental rights.

"(Bilingual education) should be our choice, it should not be mandatory," said mom Hailey Cohen, whose almost 2-year-old daughter Talia is deaf, and receives early intervention services for speaking and listening. "Why would we go through all of these hoops to get her the earliest access (to cochlear implants) possible, and then force her to learn sign language?"

The provision was championed by many deaf educators and students, as well as the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the ACLU. But it was fiercely opposed by many parents of younger deaf children like Cohen, as well as L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, whose daughter is hard of hearing.

"I was disappointed to learn that LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country, may be acting to limit choices for children and their families rather than taking action to expand those choices," Caruso said in a statement. "This resolution would eliminate parental choice."

Caruso and his wife, Tina, donated $25 million to endow the University of Southern California Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. Their daughter, Gianna "Gigi" Caruso, began using hearing aids at 3 months old.

Caruso and other opponents said bilingual instruction is essentially obsolete for the youngest deaf learners, who almost universally receive cochlear implants like Talia's, which allow the majority to listen and speak.

They argue bilingual education would create an unnecessary burden on hearing families, since more than 90% of deaf and hard-of-hearing children are born to hearing parents.

"I implore you to talk to current families of infants and young children — technology outcomes and spoken language therapy have improved substantially in the last five years," said mom Violet Lange, whose 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Ruby, is deaf and also uses a cochlear implant.

"It is too much to expect of a family thrown into the deaf world," she said, "while also grieving and navigating health care and learning how to be a parent the very first time, to (also) learn ASL."

Many who addressed the board Tuesday evening also said they feared they would be denied the input and decision-making power afforded to parents of other disabled children under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

"The resolution may not take away parent consent, but it does not go far enough to ensure all parents know their options," said Renee Lucero, director of the Echo Center, a listening and spoken-language program in Culver City, who is deaf.

But board member Goldberg said that was a misreading of the text.

"This is not a motion to avoid options, this is an opportunity to make sure that everyone gets all options presented, which both sides tell me is currently not the case," she said. "Both sides tell me that when they go into the Individualized Education Plan meeting, they have a very strong feeling somebody else has already decided what's best for their child."

Data show that many deaf and hard-of-hearing children still enter school with significant language delays, and that they perform far worse in English and language arts than their nondisabled peers.

Goldberg and other supporters have argued that introducing ASL alongside spoken English in early intervention could help lift those students. Making ASL-English bilingual the default intervention would increase parent choice by exposing them to more unbiased and complete information about both languages, she said.

"Someone has asked me, 'Why don't I say "may" begin the infant program (bilingually) instead of "will"?' " the board member said. "Here's why: We've had a problem getting it suggested at all.

"And we've had a problem with people telling parents that, if they choose ASL, they're condemning their children to failure," she said. "This is not something I'm making up — this happens. That will not happen if they have to at least offer the other first."

Ultimately, the board was swayed by the testimony of deaf students such as Vera Campos, who was among dozens of supporters who rallied outside ahead of the meeting and packed the room for the vote.

"I did not learn American Sign Language in elementary school because we were not allowed to use ASL there — my teachers were worried that if I signed, I would never learn speech," said the 11th-grader, who has a cochlear implant and is trilingual in English, Spanish and ASL.

"American Sign Language is a language that lets me communicate without limitations," the student said. All deaf and hard-of-hearing students "deserve to have access to ASL at a young age."

Indeed, several board members asked if they could sign on as co-sponsors of the resolution after hearing similar testimony.

"(The status quo) is eerily similar to the misguided history in the state of Prop. 227 (requiring) English-only education," said board member Nick Melvoin, who signed a greeting in ASL to wild applause. "I think the word that keeps coming up is additive. The ability for families to have options to be bilingual to be biliterate — it's a skill I wish I had."

Board member Monica Garcia compared the anxieties around ASL-English bilingual education to those around Spanish from decades ago.

"It sounds very familiar to an English learner," she said at the meeting. "So let us learn, right? My mother was told not to speak Spanish, because it was harmful to her and her family."

She and other members emphasized that the resolution would not replace spoken English with ASL, nor would it override parent choice.

"I have never been a person who tries to tell anybody how they should raise their child," Goldberg said. "If you don't want it, you just say no."


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