Apparently dumpster diving is an important life skill for special education students, at least according to some officials at Jurupa Unified School District in Riverside County.

Last week news reports surfaced that special education students at Patriot High School were searching through campus trash cans for recyclables that could be turned into cash as part of a “functional skills program.” According to the Press-Enterprise:

School board members … didn’t know the Patriot High School program included an activity that had special education students sort through campus trash bins. They said they learned of the issue when complaints were posted on Facebook and then reported in the news media.

Officials have suspended the recycling activity and are reviewing the overall functional skills program…

[Jurupa Unified School District Superintendent Elliott Duchon] said…that “this is standard curriculum” for the program’s students, who routinely collected recyclables such as cans and bottles.

“Up to last week, there has not been one complaint,” he said.

Ann Vessy, Riverside County Office of Education’s executive director of special education, has said such projects are common, though some schools do it different ways.

The functional skills program is carefully tailored for special education students and is part of their individualized education programs, Duchon said. It teaches general life skills such as how to do a budget, purchase groceries and cook meals.

Parents and students, however, had a very different view of the “carefully tailored” program:

… parents blasted district officials for fostering a practice they said humiliated special education students and exposed them to germs.

“It is disgusting,” said Carmen Wells, who aired her complaints to the media after learning her autistic son was digging through trash in the hot sun while wearing heavy gloves and an apron on his first day as a Patriot High freshman.

Arianna Lizarraga, a former special education student, sobbed as she recounted her feelings while digging through trash.

“I’ve been there and it’s not easy,” she said. Lizarraga’s mother, Rhonelda Lizarraga, said her daughter hadn’t told her about her experience until news surfaced about the Patriot High incident last week.

“When she told me, it made me angry because I couldn’t protect her,” Rhonelda Lizarraga said.

School board member Brian Schafer said he could sympathize with the parents’ complaints because he is the parent of a former special education student.

“Digging through trash is not a life skill,” Schafer said. “It’s unhealthy.”

This situation is also completely avoidable. Currently, there are 13 private school parental choice programs in 11 states for students with special needs (p. 13): Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Utah (see here for program descriptions).

Under education savings account (ESA) programs in Arizona and Florida parents who prefer non-public school options simply inform their state education agencies, which in turn deposit 90 percent of the funding students’ current school districts receive for them into ESAs instead. With those funds parents can pay for the current and future educational services that best meet their children’s needs.

Research shows that special needs students whose parents could exercise school choice did better academically and socially in their chosen schools, were bullied less (pp.  9 and 12), and 93 percent of parents reported being very satisfied with their chosen schools (almost three times as many parents who reported being happy with their children’s public schools).