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Adam and Judy Wang at the San Ramon Valley Unified School Distict offices in Danville, Calif. on Monday, July 29, 2013. The Wangs are seeking better services for special needs children. Their son is austistic and has a speech disorder. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

By Ashly McGlone

DANVILLE -- Federal education officials are investigating whether the San Ramon Valley Unified School District's exclusion of middle school students with disabilities from field trips and an online progress reporting system amounts to unlawful discrimination.

The probe by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights began after a complaint was filed May 15 by parents Adam and Judy Wang. They say their 12-year-old autistic son with verbal apraxia and other special needs students are "being deprived equal access to education and a fair opportunity to learn and function in the community," compared with non-disabled peers.

The field trip issue arose when Adam Wang received an email in November from the assistant principal of Los Cerros Middle School thanking the sixth grade class and chaperones for attending a field trip to The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

The Wangs didn't hear anything about the trip.

The school did not invite the Wangs' son, or his classmates enrolled in one of the school's special day classes. Rather, the off-campus outings for Wang's class consist of group walks to the sports field at neighboring Monte Vista High School, the Wangs said.

For the parents whose eldest son attended bona fide field trips with his seventh-grade classes at Windemere Ranch Middle School, the disparity was too much to bear.

"I felt the district had a very well intentioned, but very narrow view of what the children are capable of," said Adam Wang. "The main reason those (discrimination) laws were passed was so there wouldn't be this idea of separate but equal."

Judy Wang said they moved to the district last year from Fremont for its good reputation, even though neither parent works in the area.

"I think the district is doing a great job with the non-disabled kids," she said. "We were very surprised that there could be such a huge contrast with disabled children." She said the lack of outings violates her son's Individualized Education Plan which requires him to make purchases and receive change in community businesses, something also being investigated. In Fremont, his class took trips to Target, Safeway, the movie theater, bowling alley and Oakland Zoo.

According to a May 14 letter to the Wangs by former special education program supervisor Fran English, outings are not a priority for middle schoolers with special needs.

"Our middle school programs focus mostly on school-based instruction in functional skills, while at the high school and transition levels, teachers may arrange community outings such as going to a theater, restaurant, and library as they are becoming more independent and approaching adulthood," English wrote.

Karen Helibronner, secondary special education director for the district, said the decision is up to the teacher.

"We don't mandate how many field trips students and teachers have to take, so they base it on their students and what's appropriate," she said.

Middle schoolers on the "functional life skills" track, rather than diploma path, will spend time learning skills needed for outings, as well as future community job placements that are part of work experience programs, she said.

But Terry Koehne, district spokesman, said, "It is our philosophy that kids have access to these kinds of opportunities, and if that's not happening in any particular situation, then we certainly want to look into it and see what we can do to remedy it."

District officials declined to discuss the complaint or specific incidents, but said the community shouldn't be concerned about district treatment of its 2,400 special needs students, although the topic has been a concern in the past.

A 2001 review of the district's special education program by the state identified 25 deficiencies. A three-year improvement plan was adopted in 2002-03.

But complaints continued. At a meeting in September 2006, about 100 parents gathered to voice concerns about the special education program, saying the district was hostile to parents, communicated poorly and didn't provide a proper education.

That year the district assembled a team that recommended changes that resulted in the hiring of a full-time special needs liaison to help resolve disputes. The district adopted a model to minimize campus changes for special needs students and to keep them closer to home when possible. The district also began offering more parent education and improved special education staff retention, Koehne said.

"I would say our reputation was not stellar," said Koehne. "We have done a lot to bring trust and credibility back to the special ed department and program."

The Wangs say the district still has a long way to go. District officials have denied their request for a transfer to another school, and their concerns aren't unlike those of parents in the past.

Today, information about a moderate to severely disabled student's performance, assignments, tests and events is not posted to the district's online system, which is available for the non-disabled.

While the lack of system access is also under investigation, district officials said students with intensive needs do receive quarterly progress reports."I am not here to attack the district. I am here to work with this district," Judy Wang said. "We are just trying to really set it right, not just for our son, but for all the other kids."

Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo, San Ramon and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.