Student who won rights says her diploma is a sham

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NEW YORK (AP) – Thirteen years after Anastasia Somoza pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton for her severely disabled twin, Alba, to be taught in a regular classroom, the Somoza family said Tuesday that Alba received a “sham” education and demanded that New York City provide two more years of special schooling to teach her to read and write.

Alba Somoza, 22, graduated from the School of the Future in 2002 but was unprepared for college, according to her petition filed with the Department of Education.

The department agreed in 2003 to provide three more years of services to help her catch up – services that will end next month unless the family wins its fight.

“They gave her a sham transcript that said she got 90 in chemistry. She was never in the chemistry class,” Alba’s mother, Mary Somoza, said after Tuesday’s proceeding before a Department of Education hearing officer. “She was absolutely illiterate when she left the 12th grade with a diploma with Regents’ honors.”

In a statement that she read after the hearing with the aid of her computer, Alba Somoza said she is learning to be a museum docent but can’t do the job yet.

“If we can finish this program,” she said, “I believe I will be able to do it, and work in society.”

Hearing officer John Naun made no decision but scheduled additional hearings with witness testimony on June 9 and June 16.

Joining the Somoza family were actor Chris Cooper, who won an Academy Award for his performance in “Adaptation,” and his wife, Marianne Leone. Their son, Jesse, had cerebral palsy and died last year at 17.

“Mary Somoza was our mentor and support when we fought our own inclusion fight,” said Leone, who said Jesse attended Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Mass. “We just want every citizen of the United States to reach their full potential.”

The dispute is the latest chapter in the Somoza family’s fight to get an education for Alba, who has cerebral palsy and quadriplegia and cannot speak. She communicates by tapping her chin on a computerized device.

Her sister Anastasia is less severely disabled and recently completed her junior year at Georgetown University. The twins are great-granddaughters of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was assassinated in 1956. One of his sons, also named Anastasio, the girls’ great-uncle, was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979.

In 1993, Anastasia Somoza caused Clinton to tear up when she attended a town meeting at the White House and pleaded that Alba be allowed to attend regular school. Her wish was granted, but the Somoza family said Alba was “dumped” into the classroom without the support she needed to succeed.

“The reason we’re here today is because we’ve had to do this from the first grade instead of the board just going ahead and doing what is right for the child,” Mary Somoza said Tuesday.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act, eligible children between the ages of 3 and 21 are entitled to a free, appropriate education.

Department of Education lawyer Terri Stevens moved to dismiss the Somozas’ petition, saying the law does not apply to Alba now that she is over 21.

Additionally, Stevens said Mary Somoza should not be allowed to get out of the agreement she signed in 2003 stipulating that Alba would receive three more years of help.

The Somozas’ lawyer, Salem Katsh, said outside the hearing room that the age limit does not apply to Alba because she never received her free, appropriate education.

“If they did not give her an appropriate education, then the board is required to provide services beyond the age of 21 so that she gets what she was entitled to,” he said.

Under the program she has been enrolled in for three years, Alba has a full-time teacher and a technology expert who scans information into her computer. Katsh said the city has spent $1.2 million on the services since 2003, and two more years would cost another $800,000.

Mary Somoza said Alba has made “light years” of progress, “and just now, when we have the finishing line in sight, when Alba will be able to become a functioning member of society, that’s when they want to pull the plug on this program.”

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