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NYC family of girl with disabilities endures hellish 18-month wait for a school

2019-08-13

Lisa Vasquez, photographed with her daughter, Jazmiah, seven, in her Staten Island apartment on April 3, 2019. (Mark Woodward/New York Daily News)

New York City is failing Jazmiah Vasquez.

The 7-year-old hasn’t stepped foot in a classroom in more than 18 months because city education officials haven’t made good on a promise to find her a suitable school, her mother told the Daily News.

“It’s a daily agony,” Lisa Vasquez said of her fight to get school and services for Jazmiah, who has multiple disabilities including autism and anxiety and requires therapies and specialized instruction that the city’s public schools can’t provide.

Searching for a school for her daughter been a full-time job for Vasquez since she pulled the girl out of a Success Academy charter school in 2017 for failing to take care of her disabilities.

Jazmiah, seven, looks over to her mother Lisa Vasquez and her brother, Jasiel, on his fourth birthday in their Staten Island home. April 3, 2019.
Jazmiah, seven, looks over to her mother Lisa Vasquez and her brother, Jasiel, on his fourth birthday in their Staten Island home. April 3, 2019. (Mark Woodward/New York Daily News)

An administrative hearing officer agreed with Vasquez, stating that that the girl’s needs were not met.

Success Academy spokeswoman Ann Powell disputed Vasquez’s account and said the hearing officer never heard from the charter network.

After leaving Success Academy in November 2017, Vasquez got a referral to send Jazmiah to a private school on the city’s dime, administrative hearing documents show.

Since then, Vasquez said she’s been locked in an excruciating back-and-forth with school officials on where to send her daughter to school.

“All I’m asking for is education, which our right,” Vasquez explained. Nothing extra.”

Under state law, the city must pay for Jazmiah to attend a school where she can get the help required to succeed.

Jazmiah takes reading and math lessons on a whiteboard in the cramped two-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother and brother in a public housing complex on Staten Island’s North Shore. April 3, 2019.
Jazmiah takes reading and math lessons on a whiteboard in the cramped two-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother and brother in a public housing complex on Staten Island’s North Shore. April 3, 2019. (Mark Woodward / New York Daily News)

Jazmiah is not alone.

Roughly one in five city students - or 227,898 kids - have disabilities, Education Department statistics show.

Out of that, 7,500 children can’t be placed in typical public schools.

It’s not uncommon for kids to endure long waits - sometimes lasting months - for appropriate services, Brooklyn College and CUNY Grad Center Education professor David Bloomfield told The News.

“This is an example of a citywide scandal,” Bloomfield said. “It’s all too common and it tears people apart.”

After months of research, trekking across the five boroughs and out to Long Island to tour schools, Vasquez, 25, said she has been unable to persuade the city to place her daughter in any of the programs she finds suitable.

Vasquez finally compelled the city to attend a series of four administrative hearings from May to August of 2018.

With the help of a lawyer, she made her case for an impartial hearing officer with the power to force the city to take action.

The desperate mother argued that the city was blocking her efforts to find a school for Jazmiah and the department of education should be liable for placing the girl as soon as possible.

Lisa Vasquez, photographed in her Staten Island apartment on April 3, 2019.
Lisa Vasquez, photographed in her Staten Island apartment on April 3, 2019. (Mark Woodward / New York Daily News)

The hearing officer, an attorney and law professor named John Farago, agreed with Vasquez.

In his decision dated Oct. 16, Farago blamed the city for a “prolonged and sustained denial” of an education for Jazmiah, and directed Education Department officials to find a spot for her as soon as possible.

He also ordered the city to pay for home tutoring until the placement could be made and transportation once a school is found.

“The district has, in essence, conceded that it has failed to meet its burden of showing, for the last year at least, that it has offered the student a free appropriate public education,” Farago wrote, commanding school officials to “identify and implement this student’s placement in a timely manner.”

City Education Department spokeswoman Danielle Filson declined to discuss the specifics of Jazmiah’s case, citing federal student privacy laws.

Filson said the city has been working with Vasquez to fulfill the services mandated by Jazmiah’s Individual Education Plan for her disabilities. She also insists the city disputes Vasquez’s account.

“We are committed to serving every student according to his or her IEP, and we have been in frequent communication with this family for several years,” Filson said.

“We have made repeated efforts to serve this family and strongly disagree with this description of events but cannot comment on specific details because of federal privacy laws and ongoing litigation,” she added.

In the meantime, Jazmiah takes reading and math lessons on a whiteboard in the cramped two-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother and brother in a public housing complex on Staten Island’s North Shore.

Jazmiah, seven, daughter of Lisa Vasquez, photographed at their Staten Island apartment on April 3, 2019.
Jazmiah, seven, daughter of Lisa Vasquez, photographed at their Staten Island apartment on April 3, 2019. (Mark Woodward/New York Daily News)

There may be brighter days ahead soon, though. Vasquez thinks there will be a spot open for Jazmiah at East Harlem’s Reece School come July.

The time spent out of the classroom has left Jazmiah four years behind other kids her age, but she’s not deterred.

“I want an education.”