MiraCosta’s handling of adults with disabilities remains under fire

MiraCosta’s handling of adults with disabilities remains under fire
MiraCosta implemented a new classroom aide policy in July without first warning the students’ parents or conservators. Photo by Shana Thompson

OCEANSIDE — MiraCosta College continues to face allegations of discrimination, lack of public transparency and unclear financial decision-making regarding its Adults with Disabilities Program.

Adults with Disabilities is a noncredit program supporting students who typically range in age from 18 to early 60s and have autism, Down syndrome and various forms of developmental and intellectual delays.

The immediate dismissal of unregistered aides in the middle of the summer term — and Dean Kate Alder’s announcement that the administration had the ability to call campus police in the event of student misbehavior — precipitated student confusion and upset as well as parent outcry, as previously reported by The Coast News.

MiraCosta implemented the new aide policy in July without first warning the students’ parents or conservators. Given that most of the students rely on adult caretakers with power of attorney and that the disabled population can become distressed by changes in routine, the community college’s actions were perceived as insensitive.

On Aug. 21, the second day of the fall term, Kristen J. Huyck, the college’s director of public & governmental relations, marketing & communications, wrote in a statement, “In response to the concern about overcrowding in a classroom this summer, MiraCosta College has put the use of volunteers (unregistered aides) on hiatus until best practices for student support, instructional integrity and safety can all be ensured.”

Citing fire-code concerns, Huyck explained that only MiraCosta classroom aides and pre-registered aides from the college’s community partners would be allowed in classrooms.

But as parent and attorney Lucile Lynch said, “One of the reasons the students need aides is to ensure their safety.” Due to vision issues and physical disabilities, Lynch said that “it makes no sense” to talk about the students’ safety in a one-sided manner while ignoring the safety concerns that arise from removing access to aides, especially without ample warning.

Lucile Lynch speaks during an Aug. 16 MiraCosta board meeting. Photo by Carey Blakely

Alder sent an email to students in the Adults with Disabilities Program two days before the fall term commenced explaining that anyone who had an aide from an agency not currently registered with the college should contact her immediately to get the proper paperwork in place. Volunteers would not be allowed.

This announcement created difficulties for students in an Adult Transition Program through San Dieguito Union High School District because those aides would not be available at MiraCosta the week of Aug. 20 since San Dieguito does not start classes until Aug. 28. As a result, several parents ended up enrolling in their children’s MiraCosta classes as a way of getting around the ban on volunteers while ensuring their children’s needs were met.

Regarding transparency, Lynch raised concerns at the MiraCosta board meeting on Aug. 16 about the way meeting minutes were being recorded and asked that they be updated.

In this excerpt from the July 19 meeting minutes, faculty members’ names and the nature of their public comments are clearly identified, while the speakers for Adults with Disabilities are not: “… Associate faculty members Joe Chirra and Al Nyman expressed gratitude for the board of trustee’s (sic) role in the associate faculty negotiations and for the all-star negotiating team provided by Dr. (Sunita) Cooke. Nine community members spoke regarding the Adults with Disabilities Program.”

Lynch pointed out there were 10 speakers and that the nature of their concerns were not reflected in the public record. She said, “One of the reasons we keep asking for correction of your minutes is we believe that the minutes should be an accurate depiction of what the public comments are, yet what we’ve seen is a history of only really reporting the comments when they are positive or complimentary and including much more detail than when the comments are not complimentary and provide concerns or criticism.”

The whitewashing and exclusion of information in meeting minutes has been an ongoing problem, Lynch said, and then enumerated various instances.

Another parent and advocate named Laura Makings asked the board members why they had not yet implemented a full-time faculty person into the Adults with Disabilities Program, as was supposed to happen in 2016 per the AB 86 plan. The board did not address Makings’ question.

Huyck explained in a written statement, “… AB 86 is legislation passed by California that mandated adult education providers throughout the state enter into a regional consortium and develop a plan (not an agreement) for how best to meet the adult education need for their respective region. Under AB 86, no funding guidelines were provided …”

Huyck stated that the appropriation of funds was “significantly lower than the AB 86 plan authors anticipated when the ‘dream’ plan was created. Thus, it created the inability to fully fund the original AB86 proposal. …” Nonetheless, some parents question how funding has been allocated and whether MiraCosta is prioritizing other adult-education programs over Adults with Disabilities.

The Coastal North County Adult Education Consortium (of which MiraCosta is a member) did not hold public meetings from April 19, 2016, until December 13, 2017. The consortium, by its own guidelines, is supposed to meet at least quarterly. Furthermore, the Brown Act requires that financial decisions by legislatively created bodies be made at public meetings, so any financial decisions rendered during that time would have been in violation.

Lynch said that she and others have repeatedly requested an audit for that time period, but one has never been conducted by her knowledge.

9 Comments
  1. Lucile Lynch 4 months ago

    Part of these problems continue because MiraCosta has declined to hire anyone in a leadership role with any background with working with adults with disabilities. MiraCosta’s administration removed the one leadership position held by someone with experience with working the students in its adults with disabilities program and in her place put a “chair” who is a math teacher who has not worked with this student group. Students and the public have complained about the inequity of letting other programs have leadership chairs who have demonstrated records of experience while the adults with disabilities program does not get the equal opportunity to have access to experienced leadership. The inequity continues even though the position of MiraCosta’s President (Sunita Cooke) publicly public is that she and MiraCosta embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. Yet, as speakers have shared at board meetings, the student population with disabilities was not even included in or targeted by the research conducted for MiraCosta’s Equity Plan even though state law listed students with disabilities as a group to be targeted by the equity plans.

    Dean Alder, the dean who supervises the math teacher “chair” for the adults with disabilities program, similarly has no experience working with this student population. Her actions suddenly kicking out the student’s instructional aides this summer not only caused problems for the students this past summer, but her actions have also resulted in problems for students this fall. San Dieguito families were just notified on August 23 that their students in its adult transition program cannot attend the MiraCosta classes this fall because of all the confusion and problems caused by Alder’s sudden changes. We have implored Dr. Cooke to give this program a chair with experience in working with the agencies and students but she has declined to do so. Dr. Cooke’s failure to make a change was of particular concern to students and families after Alder appeared in the summer classes warning about potential police action against the students if they misbehaved.

    We have asked if Cooke even attends the “President’s Alliance on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” Committee (PADEI), which is essentially her committee at MiraCosta, to see if she has a genuine commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion but so far, we have not received any confirmation that she attends these meetings. There have also been preliminary reports that she may be trying to do away with “boutique” student groups (not my words) which, if true, is also concerning because students need groups to obtain the support of like minded students to help their collective voices be heard. We have asked too if there is any training on campus in the area of neurodiversity or to help staff work with students who may have intellectual disabilities or behavioral challenges that may result from their disability. We await answers.

    Unlike MiraCosta, other Community Colleges have used their adult ed block grant funding to start and implement innovative programs within a very short time to address the significant workforce gaps faced by adults with disabilities (e.g. Saddleback, Irvine, Marin County and more). Studies have shown how postsecondary education is critical to help these students access the workforce and how such education can increase their employability and earning power by around 50%. Unfortunately, per the state funded research conducted in 2015, MiraCosta serves only around 2% of the potential student population in its area.

    Several complaints have been filed at the state level but so far MiraCosta has asked to investigate the complaints internally, which seems to present an inherent conflict of interest to those filing the complaints. Its internal audit last fall found that certain irregularities had occurred with respect to its handling of the adult ed block grant consortium and use of funding for a MiraCosta grant supervisor, but similar to the santization of the minutes, even the internal report’s findings refused to acknowledge the laws that had not been followed, instead calling them “policies.” We continue to hope that MiraCosta’s Board directs Dr. Cooke to demand that students with disabilities be afforded leadership with experience like the other programs so that these students have at least one person advocating for them at MiraCosta since at this time, no one else is.

    • P.T. Austin 4 months ago

      Coming from someone who has much experience in the field of education, especially at the community college level I’m afraid we come across parents like this often. Although in the profession of being an educator communicating with students and thier families is a huge part of being successful at the job it is common to run into parents that assume since they attended school or have gone to their share of PTA meetings, they understand how to be a teacher. I have been following this issue for a while now because I myself attended classes at Mira Costa in the late 80s. From the perspective of an outsider looking in on this topic I have to say this seems like a problem not with the College or it’s educators but certain parents and their need for attention. The issue with the aides is quite simple, think about it from the perspective of another parent. If something terrible happened in a classroom and your child was in it, wouldn’t you want to know exactly who was in that classroom with your child? And then it comes out that the school itself doesn’t even know exactly who is in the classroom! You would probably end up sounding like this lawyer parent, Mrs. Lynch, yourself. And as for the math teacher who took over the department I see this parent complaining about. Have you looked into how this person is as a teacher? Usually you can see what other students have said about them online. That’s probably where I would start if I were you. You can google anything. Don’t forget to study!
      With love,
      P.T.

  2. J. Fiore 4 months ago

    FOLLOW THE MONEY.
    SHAME ON YOU MCCC.

  3. Sophy Chaffee 4 months ago

    Thanks for covering this issue. Educating adults with disabilities should not be an afterthought for MiraCosta. Get a leader who understands the needs of disabled students and the program can shine.

  4. Michelle M Wolfson 4 months ago

    Something is very wrong at the administrative level at MiraCosta. When it comes to our most vulnerable students, more attention seems to be paid to justifying ill-conceived and insensitive actions than to making substantive and positive changes in the letter and spirit of the law. Thank you for covering this very important developing story.

  5. Laura Makings 4 months ago

    I understand there was no aid in the 5 hour Life Skills class. Fortunately there were a couple of volunteers there to support the teacher. Funding issue? It shouldn’t be, they have the money through the adult ed block grant. They just don’t want to spend it on AwD program. Not sure how that’s safe under the Educational Assistance Class regulation 5 CCR § 56028(d)….on one hand they said they cleared the rooms of aides to keep it safe under fire codes yet if they were so concerned with safety why aren’t they providing aides? There are still so many questions and we thank you for covering this important story.

  6. Linda Gunderson 4 months ago

    Thank you so much for covering this story. I don’t think most people realize how important classes like this are to disabled adults. My young adult son has Down Syndrome, and he doesn’t get to research hundreds of college options and pick the best one. This is it for him right now, and until the change in management over the summer it has been a great program. Every semester for the last two years he has done a research project with a class presentation in the Basic Skills class. The class has improved his computer skills, research skills, and his ability to communicate and speak in public. Last year he also got to take a computer skills class with a great teacher. Now his program through the school district is saying that they will not take him to the basic skills class this semester, citing the MCC aide situation as well as a change in schedule for Basic Skills (although since the class end time only shifted by five minutes and the students could just leave early perhaps this is another case of a program looking for an excuse to do less for its disabled students). Each student is entitled to a reasonable accommodation for his or her disability, which frequently means an individual or small group aide. MCC only provides one aide for the entire classroom, so the outside aides provide accommodation without cost to the college. It’s disingenuous to describe non-paid aides as “volunteers” when they are accommodations that come without cost. Disabled adults who come with a parent are no less entitled to an aide accommodation than their peers who come with a paid aide through an adult program. If indeed the problem is overcrowding, then the solution is adding additional sections instead of restricting accommodations. MCC seems happy enough to accept grant money for non-credit courses, but not to spend it on disabled students. I encourage everybody to look on Transparent California to see how many highly paid administrators are employed by MCC and consider how little they are doing for this vulnerable population that they are tasked to support.

  7. Martha Duncan 4 months ago

    As a parent of an adult student with special needs, I ask that you PLEASE continue to cover this developing story and others like it. Our students have faced discrimination for years; first, with SDUHSD and now with MCC. A successful program cannot be run by administrators who are not qualified and do not have any experience with adults with disabilities. Our kids deserve an equal opportunity to higher education just like anyone else in our community. Something must be done and transparancy would be a great place to start. We are not going away.

  8. Julie 4 months ago

    It makes me so sad to see the disabled being treated so badly. There are simply no excuses for this!

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