Honor roll snub at Pioneer prompts complaint to feds
By James C. Loughrie
HANFORD - Wendi Cooper does not expect to receive an award today at a school assembly recognizing students who have earned a 3.0 or better grade point average.
Though the Pioneer Middle School eighth grader has consistently earned grades that exceed the needed "B" average, the school left her off its academic honor roll.
And that is why her mother, Shaun Mattos-Cooper, has filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Wendi Cooper is on a modified education program, and as such, is not allowed to be considered for Pioneer's academic honor roll. Cooper, a partially deaf 14-year-old, receives assistance from instructional aides. Unable to hear out of her right ear, and with partial hearing in her left ear, Cooper still attends classes daily but is allowed other items such as additional time on test questions and more explanation than other students.
Almost totally deaf since birth, Cooper's hearing did not stabilize until she was 7 years old and received a Cochlear Implant in her left ear. The device gives her the ability to hear limited amounts. If she hears three people speaking at the same time, even in the background, the noise blends together in a confusing array of sounds. Since then, she has begun developing the listening skills that most acquire at birth.
"Wendi has the hearing age of a 7-year-old, because she's had her Cochlear Implants for seven years," said her mother. Because of that, Cooper's language development and ability to read and write words have all taken longer to develop.
When her daughter did not receive an honor roll certificate in 2001, Mattos-Cooper said she was told by Pioneer School District Superintendent John Webster that Cooper's assistance in the Individual Education Program (IEP) gave the eighth grader an advantage over other students.
Webster today said that he is not allowed to talk about a student's performance or records, but said that modified education students are ineligible for academic honor roll because, "They are not even on the same curriculum ... they don't have the same requirements."
Students with modified education, he said, are given a separate ceremony in their classrooms. When asked if that was an equivalent ceremony, Webster said, "I would hesitate to call it equivalent, but there is a recognition."
Mattos-Cooper said that recognition should be in front of her daughter's peers. "She wants that pat on the back, she needs that pat on the back. It's good for her."
A complaint has been filed against Pioneer School District to the United States Department of Education, accusing the district of discriminating against a deaf student.
The investigation stems from the school not awarding Cooper honor roll designation for earning above a 3.0 grade point average. She has consistently received report cards that qualify her for honor roll, according to her mother.
Carlin Hertz, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, said the complaint was filed last month and is under review. He said he could not comment on details of the complaint.
Mattos-Cooper said considering the help her daughter receives as an advantage discounts the meaning behind special education. "It's not fair that they give her, that the law gives her, the level playing field and they penalize her for having it."
In January 2002, Mattos-Cooper wrote a letter to Webster asking him to clarify the policy in writing. Webster wrote back that, "It is the historic practice at Pioneer that students who are receiving a modified curriculum are not eligible to receive regular honor roll recognition."
Webster further explained in the letter that there were no written policies to address the issue.
Nothing existed in the district's policy handbook for the 2000 through 2001 school year noting which students can and cannot receive regular honor roll. It only lists that students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average with no grade lower than a "C."
In the 2002 through 2003 school year policy book, the rule is underlined as a new one, that students receiving a modified education "will not be eligible for the district's honor roll."
The assemblies take place during the school day, which may be a violation. According to the California Department of Education's book, "Programs for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students," schools must provide all students with access to all school-related activities and extracurricular activities.
Mattos-Cooper said that she will continue fighting the district's policy. "We started this because of Wendi, but we're continuing this not just because of Wendi, but because of all the other kids that this affects because it's not fair."
(The reporter may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Dec. 5, 2003)
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