5th-Grader's Mother Sues School District

Education: Santa Ana women claims her son was passed at each grade level even though he can't read or write.

SANTA ANA—The mother of a 10-year-old fifth-grader has sued Santa Ana Unified School District for advancing her son through five years of elementary school even though he could not read or write English.

Lourdes Gutierrez of Santa Ana claims in a lawsuit filed last week that educators of Glenn Martin Elementary School “wrongfully and unlawfully” failed to properly teach her son, Roberto, causing him “humiliation” among his classmates.

In a unique twist, Gutierrez’s suit does not seek money damages, but instead asks that the school be closed and that the money used to operate it be given to students at the school in the form of education “vouchers” to pay for admission into private schools.

“I have no idea how they kept passing him at each grade level,” said Gutierrez’s lawyer, Emir Phillips. “It was a total and complete lack of concern on his teachers’ part. . . . How do you pass one homework assignment in the third grade if you can’t read or write?”

Phillips contended that teachers at the school never helped Roberto — whose first language is Spanish — overcome the language barrier in learning English.

The attorney said he filed the case in Orange County Superior Court as a class-action suit because he believes that there are other students at the school who are also functionally illiterate as a result of inadequate teaching.

Officials at the elementary school declined to comment, referring all calls to the district office.

Diane Thomas, a spokeswoman for the school district, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that the district had not yet received a copy.

“I can say we are very surprised by the charges,” Thomas said.

She added that the district has “hard-working teachers who are committed to addressing the needs of their students,” particularly Latino students who make up about 60% of the district’s students.

Gutierrez, reached at her home Tuesday, said: “I’m very, very sad and very, very angry too (about Roberto’s illiteracy). . . . This is going to hurt my son very bad.”

She added that Roberto has “cried because he can’t read. He cries, ‘It’s my fault, it’s my fault.’ But I tell him, ‘No honey, it’s not your fault.’ “

Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant, said that when she enrolled Roberto for kindergarten in 1987, she did not sign him up for bilingual education because she wanted him to learn English, believing that it would help him succeed in the future.

Phillips said Gutierrez had suspicions that her son couldn’t read or write while he was in the second grade but was told by his teacher that Roberto was “only a little slow and not to worry about it.”

Her suspicions were confirmed in 1990 when she briefly enrolled Roberto in a third-grade class at a school in Corona, a city where Gutierrez planned to move. School officials in Corona tested Roberto and suggested that he be placed back in the first grade because of a learning disability.

But when her moving plans fell through, she re-enrolled Roberto in Glenn Martin where he was then placed in special education classes. Then, Roberto was retested by an independent evaluator who concluded that the boy had no learning disabilities, Phillips said.

“He has no learning disability, it was simply that he wasn’t being taught at Glenn Martin,” Phillips said.

Gutierrez alleges that before her son’s illiteracy was discovered, school officials frequently told her that her son was a “good child” who only needed to practice his alphabet, according to the lawsuit. Nothing about his inability to read or write was mentioned, she contends in the lawsuit.

“Many times, at Glenn Martin, Roberto’s homework was never looked at or graded,” the suit alleges. “In school meetings, the teachers never brought up Roberto’s homework as proof of Roberto’s lack of education.”

Roberto did not have attendance or discipline problems at school, the suit maintains.

Because he was not properly taught to read or write, Roberto is often embarrassed and humiliated before his fellow classmates, the suit alleges.

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