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Autistic Boy Left Without Caregiver at New School, Mother Looks for Answers

By Victoria Johnson | August 26, 2013 10:23am | Updated on August 26, 2013 7:56pm
 Chopin Elementary and Lowell Elementary are both welcoming schools for the shuttered Lafayette Elementary.
First Day of School in Humboldt Park
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HUMBOLDT PARK — The first day of school was not without hiccups for students transferred from the shuttered Lafayette Elementary School, particularly for those with special needs.

Many parents already were worried about what the new school year would look like at Lowell Elementary, which is taking on Lafayette's special-needs kids, but one parent doesn't even know what Tuesday will look like.

When Josefina Ortiz showed up Monday morning with her 10-year-old autistic son, Salomon, they were supposed to be met with a special one-on-one caregiver, but no one was there.

"I don't know what happened," said Ortiz. "When I talked to the principal last week, she said [the caregiver] would be hired, but when I went there — nobody."

The anxiety was evident in Ortiz' voice when she was reached by phone Monday evening because Salomon — like many severely autistic children — is unpredictable and is prone to outbursts that may even be violent.

When he was at Lafayette he was assigned a one-on-one caregiver to help prevent the outbursts, and one in particular did even more — helping calm Salomon while also helping him open up a bit more to the world.

"That one-on-one was awesome," said former Lafayette LSC Chair Valerie Nelson. "This [Lowell Elementary] principal knew that the family of this kid requested this caregiver specifically. The Lafayette principal wrote a recommendation, and I wrote a recommendation."

The caregiver did not wish to be identified.

Meanwhile, Ortiz, whose English is limited, is struggling to figure out what's happening.

"Salomon can miss maybe one, two, maybe three days, but he needs to go to school," she said. "I'll wait until tomorrow, but if I don't hear by tomorrow I'll [transfer] him."

Lowell Principal Gladys Betty River could not be reached for comment, while spokespeople from CPS could did not immediately provide more information on the issue late Monday afternoon. Ortiz's ordeal was reminiscent of a similar situation on the South Side, where a parent said a school bus never showed up to pick up her autistic daughter.

Things had been a bit more cheerful in the morning at Chopin Elementary, 2450 W. Rice St., where the general education students from Lafayette Elementary were transferred.

Kids ran around greeting each other, and some tumbled on the playground equipment while about a dozen teachers, administrators and support staff stood outside the building to — as one administrator put it — "make sure we have a lot of faces and feet on the street."

Tiffanie McDonough, mother of a new Chopin kindergartner, said Safe Passage route workers were clearly visible on their walk to school.

"There wasn't very much foot traffic when we were coming here, but we saw two people on separate corners with the yellow vests," she said.

Rousemary Vega, an outspoken mother who who refused to leave Lafayette Elementary School with her family on the last day of school in June, stood out front passing out fliers about a boycott planned for Wednesday afternoon.

"I am here to let the parents from Lafayette know that our fight's not over," she said.

Activists are calling for parents to boycott Chicago Public Schools Wednesday to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.

Vega, however, opted to send her own kids to Pritzker School instead of Chopin, which CPS selected as the "welcoming school" for Lafayette kids. She said the classrooms at Chopin would be too full, though exact class sizes were not given.

"Pritzker was closer to my home, so I just decided it would be the best decision for them as a parent," she said.

Still, though Vega had been one of the most vocal opponents of Lafayette's closure, she was optimistic about the new year at Chopin.

"It's too early to say, but you know, the kids look excited," she said. "We'll see what happens."