Bakersfield Students Organize for the Integration of Their Friend with Disabilities

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Louise Fuller was a precocious baby. But when she was two, she choked on aspirin, inducing a coma. She awoke with severe cerebral palsy, seizures and diabetes. Because Louise was unable to speak or control her body, neurologists advised her mother, Debbie, to put her daughter in an institution.

Debbie Fuller rejected the advice and cared for her daughter at home. When Louise reached school age, Debbie enrolled her in a special education program at Bakersfield’s Fairfax Elementary School. In sixth grade, Louise met Marlina Romero, a student in the same grade who was assigned to Louise’s class as a peer tutor. The two girls became friends, and Fuller began visiting Romero’s class, where other children began bonding with the blonde girl in the wheelchair.

Separating Louise from Her Friends

On the first day of seventh grade, Romero convinced the school to allow Fuller to join her non-special education class full time. There Fuller developed friendships with other students. Administrators advised Debbie Fuller to end the friendships. As she later recalled, school officials feared that “these kids would get over it, that Louise would be made fun of, the kids will get boyfriends and leave her behind.”

But the reverse occurred. Louise joined her friends as an eighth grade cheerleader. They helped her shop for fashionable clothes and made sure that her hair was styled. And when the school refused to allow Fuller to ride a bus for a graduation trip to the Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, Fuller’s friends rented a limousine. Once at the park, they pushed Louise’s wheelchair and carried her up and down stairs.

That trip was bittersweet, though, because the group of friends knew that it was possible the school district would assign Fuller not to Foothill High, the school near her home that her friends would attend, but to North High, a school with a special education program.

Their fears were borne out. The school district assigned Fuller to North High, despite her mother’s objections. Debbie Fuller knew that her daughter would be better off with her friends, saying of Louise, “She has gained more from peer-to-peer contact than by any other device. She just does more, will try harder and be more likely to accomplish by being around her friends. . . . Her peers have expectations for her that she lives up to. They know her.”

Fueled by their bond with Louise and knowledge gained by their eighth grade study of the Constitution and its promise of equality and the right to protest, Fuller’s friends began a campaign to integrate their companion into Foothill High School.

Organizing for Integration

They circulated a petition, signed by nearly 500 junior high and high school students, supporting Fuller’s attendance at Foothill High. On Fuller’s first day of high school, her friends organized a picket around the school district office. They appealed to school officials. They held press conferences, raised money through car washes, and even produced a video to build support for their cause. Friends Together Forever was the motto Fuller’s supporters adopted for their efforts.

Fuller’s friends visited her daily and found her progressively more depressed and regressing in her behavior. She began, for example, to put her hands in her mouth, something she picked up from a classmate at her new school. As negative reinforcement, her teachers put vinegar on her hands. That punishment was ineffective, but Louise stopped the behavior after Romero told her, “You don’t see us doing that.”

Successful Advocacy

During their sophomore year, Fuller’s friends attended a conference, where they learned of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and they contacted Diane Lipton, a DREDF attorney whose own daughter had been segregated in school because of cerebral palsy.

On March 29, 1993, Lipton negotiated with Kern High School District administrators for eight hours. The meeting ended with a two-page agreement giving Fuller permission to attend high school with her friends at Foothill High beginning the following academic year.

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