El Modena High School students led a walkout Thursday in the wake of the death of a classmate with autism who died from injuries he suffered in a campus golf cart crash.
The Orange Unified School District superintendent's office released this statement about the walkout:
"We understand how difficult this week has been for many of our students. We sympathize with their frustration and sadness. Frankly, this anxiety is being fueled by unfounded rumors and misinformation on social media, and that is unfortunate. We continue to support our students, who are expressing grief in a variety of ways, and encourage them to meet with our on-campus grief counseling team. Our primary goal is to ensure the safety of all students at El Modena as we mourn the tragic loss of our student."
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Robert Glassman, an attorney for the family of the accident victim, 15-year-old Manny Perez, said he intends to file a claim against the school district imminently.
A legal claim is a necessary precursor to a lawsuit against a public agency.
"Students are demanding answers and demanding action and the family appreciates everything everyone is doing and the concern that is coming from the community,'' Glassman said.
"What we need to do is really examine the policies and procedures that, if any, were being implemented at the time and determine whether or not something more should have been done that wasn't done on Monday,'' Glassman said. "And, based on what we know so far, it sounds like the school knew of their obligations and responsibilities, but failed to carry those out on the morning of Sept. 9, 2019.''
Manny was diagnosed with autism as a young boy, Glassman said.
"He was on the more severe end of the autism spectrum,'' the attorney said, adding Manny had the mental capacity of a 3- to 5-year-old.
Manny attended El Modena for a short time last year and started this school year Aug. 21.
It appears there was a key in the golf cart and it was idling at the time the teen jumped on it for a ride, Glassman said, adding there is video of the incident, which the attorney was seeking.
Manny "couldn't appreciate that he was in danger and he couldn't appreciate he may be endangering others... and the school knew that and they should have taken greater care and caution to keep him safe and protect him against these known risks,'' Glassman said.
The attorney said he was told security officers used the golf cart on campus.
"The most important thing is that Manny's mom and his family want to see he didn't die in vain,'' Glassman said. "They want to see some kind of change in policies and procedures at the district and all schools throughout California to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again.''
The accident was under investigation by school officials and authorities, and a GoFundMe page set up for funeral expenses for the teenager has surpassed its goal of $5,000. As of late this morning, $6,245 had been raised.
The student crashed in the golf cart on campus about 10 a.m. Monday, said Sgt. Phil McMullin of the Orange Police Department. The teen was taken to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening, according to school officials.
Orange Unified School District officials on Wednesday issued a statement saying, "No other students were involved in the accident. We were devastated to learn that he died from those injuries in the hospital. A letter was sent to families of El Modena High School alerting them to this heartbreaking incident. We take student safety very seriously and maintain appropriate supervision when students are on campus. At the time of the incident, the student was supervised by a one-to-one aide who attempted to stop him from operating the golf cart. We are cooperating with law enforcement to determine the exact circumstances surrounding the accident.''
In a letter to families from the superintendent's office, officials said, "Words are insufficient to describe the pain our students and staff are now feeling... Our top priority as a district has always been to ensure the safety, health and well-being of those we are privileged to serve. More than anything, we owe it to our students to provide them with safe and supportive campuses that cultivate learning. This tragic accident has devastated our community, and we continue to gather the facts. We will work closely with our law enforcement partners as they complete their investigation into the circumstances of this accident.''
The district has provided a team of school psychologists to help anyone in the community who needs it, officials said.
Relatives told reporters they want answers from the school and the district about what happened and why Manny was operating a golf cart.
Organizers of the GoFundMe page accused the district of "trying to sweep this under the rug and put the blame on Manny,'' while saying school staff left Manny unattended on a golf cart which he crashed.
"It is unjust for us to simply accept their claim without knowing exact details on who was or was not supervising during the time that this tragic incident occurred,'' organizers wrote.
"Manny had a contagious laugh,'' supporter Jeanette Martinez wrote on the page. "I will truly miss him and I hope he's resting (peacefully). Will keep him and his family in my thoughts and prayers.''
The district released a statement late Wednesday saying the boy was never left unattended.
"He had two aides with him when he entered a parked golf cart," according to the statement. "These aides immediately tried to persuade the student to exit the cart and tried to stop it as it sped forward and ultimately crashed.''
No other students were involved in the crash or anywhere near the scene, school officials said.
Manny's god-family and close friends say their lives will never be the same.
"What we want to know is the truth. They’ve been telling us different stories," Jajaira Larios, Manny’s friend, said.
They also say they don't believe it was an accident.
"They want to hide everything like if it’s something normal," Cristina Sanchez, the victim's god-sister, said. "It’s not fair for the mother because no one is ever going to cure her pain."