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Special education parents, teachers outline reality of new school year

MARICOPA — Six-year-old Kaela Leonard is a happy kid. She loves to play, hang out with her brother and parents, Julie and Scott Leonard, and is known to be a little mischievous sometimes.

She also has microcephaly, moderate intellectual disability, epilepsy and is both non-verbal and non-ambulatory. During the day, she uses a wheelchair.

“On her report cards, nothing looks good on there because she’s so developmentally behind,” Julie Leonard said. “But they say she is a great eater. She knows where her food is, she goes right for it, so we had a really good laugh that she excels in food.”

Kaela gets an A-plus in lunchtime from her teachers, but the first grader struggles in most other subjects. This year, she and her 11-year-old brother both went back to school online full-time.

“It’s better for our older one, but he’s pretty self-sufficient,” Leonard said. “He’s really not had much of any problems. It’s our daughter, she’s been just so left behind.”

When Kaela attends school in person, she plays music and works on various goals and therapies with her teachers. But she hadn’t been back to school since early March. When school resumed online, Kaela was expected to keep up with traditional first grade school work like social studies and math, which is beyond her current abilities.

“None of these apply to our daughter,” Leonard said. “She doesn’t respond to her name. She has a very short attention span. Her receptive language skills are like a 2-month-old baby’s. They didn’t take into account that what she was doing in school is just not even in the ballpark of what they expect a normal first grader to do.”

Kaela headed back to school Aug. 17 to resume some in-person learning with modifications. As part of Executive Order 2020-51, Gov. Doug Ducey mandated the need for accessible education for students with disabilities like Kaela.

“That order basically said that we must serve our students with exceptional needs who may not be making progress in the general ed program,” Teri Louer, director of Exceptional Student Services for Maricopa Unified School District, said in a board meeting Aug. 12. “These are students that require that in-person learning be provided as free and appropriate public education.”

Each school team analyzed the Exceptional Student Services students’ needs to determine if the child was in need of further support through in-person learning based on the rate of improvement they would make.

Louer said MUSD sent out 310 invitations to parents of ESS students to join in-person learning. There were 179 parents who responded, and 103 said yes. Of those, 46 are preschool students. MUSD will provide bussing for students like Kaela, who utilizes a wheelchair lift to get on and off the bus.

Leonard was happy at the idea of having her daughter back in classes, but the worry of COVID-19 looms.

“Honestly the only solution to our particular situation is to have her in class,” Leonard said. “It’s such a difficult situation because so many of these children are medically fragile on top of having all of this need for therapies. We’re lucky that our daughter really isn’t in the medically fragile group. She does get sick very easily, but generally she gets over things.”

It’s also the teachers that Leonard worries about, especially in classrooms for students with special needs.

“The teachers have been wonderful and I’m sure they’re feeling at least as frustrated about everything as we are right now,” Leonard said. “I hope they will at least get hazard pay for this. Because, especially in the special-needs classrooms, my daughter drools a lot, so these teachers are going to be exposed to whatever’s going around.”

Maricopa High School special education teacher Kayla Colling understands that sentiment, and it’s a thought that has gone through her head as she tackles online learning for her students. Kids in life skills or self-contained classes were similarly allowed to resume in-person schooling at MHS, while around 50 students attending online school via MUSD’s learning lab are seated in the school cafeteria. For now, however, Colling’s classes will remain online.

Still — nothing beats the smiling faces of her students.

“It was just so refreshing to see the faces of my students … just talking to them again, since it had been a while and just seeing their faces even though it’s through a computer screen,” said Colling. “You don’t realize how much you really do miss work when you don’t have a choice.”

She has taught at MHS for four years and is a seasoned, dual-certified instructor. At MHS, she teaches primarily English and reading skills to her resource students.

“I’m trying to make the best of it,” Colling said. “I like that MUSD really has been working on this since COVID hit first thing in March. ... Personally, technology is not something I’m 100% comfortable with, but I really appreciated the updated training.”

Colling recognizes the same Catch-22 that Leonard is experiencing. Students with disabilities learn best through hands-on instruction, but hands-on instruction could turn deadly for a medically fragile student should they contract COVID-19.

“Unfortunately for a lot of my resource students, they are very much like me in the sense that we’re visual, hands-on learners,” said Colling. “So even though it is keeping everyone safe right now, which is the biggest priority, they really do need to be face-to-face with their peers.”

Another aspect is the teachers themselves. Some of whom are also immunocompromised and worry about contracting the illness, or spreading it to students.

“Right now with our numbers the way they are in Arizona, I really don’t feel comfortable going back face-to-face. Unfortunately, being an essential worker, I understand that that day may come where I’m just told,” Colling said. “I will say that our admin team has been very understanding and asking us every week who is comfortable coming in, who wouldn’t be comfortable? … I do feel like my voice is heard, and that means the world.”

In the meantime, Colling said she is finding creative ways to teach online and, despite the occasional technological hiccup, things are going well. Even virtually, her students, parents and coworkers have managed to make her feel the community support from her home computer.

“I feel like the community has really come together. It’s definitely not easy,” Colling said. “I really hope that the community continues to be patient and supports us and works with us because we are in this together — truly. Even though technology and other resources are not always up to par, we are all mindful of this and just doing the best and I know that our end goal is to be back safely together once again, face to face.”

MUSD has outlined additional information for what happens when a student or teacher tests positive. Read more about that protocol on the MUSD BoardDocs page.

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Gusse decides against contesting election, wishes candidates well

MARICOPA — After a week of back and forth with different entities in Pinal County, Councilwoman Julia Gusse has chosen to step back from her attempt to contest the primary election results for Maricopa.

She launched a complaint last week with Pinal County following a ballot misprinting issue that affected 412 ballots in the county. The county, while offering estimates of Maricopa’s faulty ballot numbers, will not delineate those numbers further.

“As of this afternoon, my attorney was not provided with a response from the county regarding the ballot errors,” Gusse said in an email late Tuesday. “After much consideration, I have decided to drop this matter and will not be formally contesting this election.”

An Air Force veteran, Gusse has served two terms on the council and earlier was an employee of the city. She is a mother of three and the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

On the council, Gusse was proud to be an advocate for minority voices and said she was not afraid to ask the hard questions. She also was focused on setting up veterans events and helped create the Cultural Affairs Committee. Additionally, she ushered in several big city projects along with the council and mayor like the State Route 347 overpass and the new library.

In conceding the loss, Gusse commended her friend and fellow current Councilwoman Nancy Smith and newcomer Bob Marsh for their wins.

“I wish the candidates well and congratulate Nancy and Bob,” Gusse said. “I have served this community as an employee and council member for over 10 years and it has truly been an honor. To all of those that have supported me through the years, thank you.”

In the Aug. 4 primary, Gusse lost a spot in a November run-off by 15 votes, falling behind challenger Andre LaFond after showing an early lead. He will run against Amber Liermann, who came in third. Marsh and Smith were elected because they received a majority.

The ballot problem involved people getting early ballots that did not accurately take city limits into account. County officials said the issue was corrected and did not affect the results.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, the council voted 6-1 to approve the primary election results, with Gusse dissenting.

Maricopa burn victim struggling to recover at home

MARICOPA — On July 10, Gina LaPoint stood in her kitchen over a pot of food. She was cooking for her family, as she usually did, when a bit of grease spilled and started a small fire on the stove.

Meanwhile her husband, Scott, was doing yard work outside when he heard the sound of the fire alarm going off inside. In a house full of teenagers, this was not an entirely unusual occurrence. He opened the back door and prepared to scold his kids, but a black plume of smoke greeted him instead.

Inside, Gina was running around frantically.

“I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’” Scott said. “She’s running back and forth apologizing, and I see her as she’s walking towards me with her arms straight out. Her hair is singed, and her skin on her chest and arms is literally melting off her body and her shirt is on fire.”

Gina had tried to smother the fire with a dishtowel, but in the attempt she accidentally caught her hair on fire, which still had chemicals in it from a routine hair treatment. With the fire still burning and only thinking of her two children and husband in the home, she grabbed the boiling pot of oil off the stove. In her haste, it tipped and spilled all over her.

Gina suffered third degree burns to 20% of her body. Her right arm, neck and chest were the most affected, with nerve endings and sweat glands permanently damaged or gone, and only tendons remaining in some places. Her 18-year-old son witnessed the whole incident and is still traumatized by what he saw.

Scott immediately jumped into action, grabbing his wife and putting her in the shower, pulling off her burnt clothes so they wouldn’t stick to her wounds, and he dialed 911.

“Maricopa Fire Department was there within five minutes, they had an IV in her within seven minutes and they were on the road within 10,” Scott said. “I mean, their response time was just beautiful. They were professional. I’ve never seen a response team that responsive — that good at what they do.”

It was then that new problems arose for the couple, who are parents of seven children. Scott couldn’t ride in the ambulance or be with her at all in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions. Gina, 40, was sent to the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix, the only nationally certified burn center in Arizona.

“She was in severe pain, if you can imagine. Her hair was fried, her face was burned, her skin was literally hanging off her chest and arms,” Scott said. “She’s rushed to the hospital where they care for her, they sedate her. Then the doctor says well, due to COVID, it’s a really dangerous situation for anybody to be here. So we have one of two options — you can stay here, or we can send you home and have you come back tomorrow morning.”

Gina was in no condition to go home, but Scott rushed to the hospital to see his wife and take her home to care for her. Her injuries were severe, and though the hospital had promised to send a prescription for pain medication to a nearby pharmacy, it never arrived. Gina suffered through a night of pain before returning to the burn center the following day. Instead of admitting her, she sat in a crowded waiting room for two hours while COVID-19 patients surrounded her.

“Finally she gets back (in a room), they open it up and they say, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on here? She should never have been released,’” Scott said grimly. “They already admitted that part, that she should never have been released. They bring her back, she’s in serious condition. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks.”

After her two-week stay, the hospital recommended she go home and work with their insurance company, Cigna, to receive in-home care. But that never happened.

“It was a horrible experience,” Scott said. “They could not find a provider that was able to come out to our house as was ordered by the hospital. So my wife is here at our house with third degree burns, open wounds all over her chest, her right arm, her neck, her throat, with me. No training whatsoever, no real instructions. Nobody had talked to me about how to care for her wounds.”

It’s been six weeks since the fire, and Scott has taken on the role of nursing his wife back to health. But it’s not easy. He is changing her bandages, bathing her, helping her do hourly physical therapy and organizing her medications while also juggling housework, cooking and home duties.

Their two youngest children, a 17-year-old girl and 18-year-old boy, are both also in online school. Between helping with Wi-Fi issues and his full-time online job as a construction manager, Scott has been stretched to the max.

For Gina, in normal circumstances, Scott says, a burn like this could begin healing in as little as two to three weeks, but because she is being cared for at home, it’s much harder to maintain a sterile environment.

“Due to, of course, not being trained, (and) our inability to really recognize anything, she has had infections, she has had allergic reactions to bandages, to ointments, to medications,” Scott said. ”It regresses by a week. All because of inadequate training, because we had none — something that could have been prevented if a skilled nurse was to be sent out to the house.”

Then comes the isolation of COVID-19, preventing most family members from visiting, preventing even Gina’s children at home from seeing their mom, who must remain in a sterile environment. Her sister is the one exception. A caretaker by profession and a single mother, she stops by when she can to help.

Scott describes Gina as a beauty with a contagious smile and a warm and engaging personality.

“Gina is the sweetest, most kindhearted woman you’ll ever meet,” Scott said. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was born in Compton (California). She’ll tell everyone, ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m from Compton.’ But it’s a joke. She’s just a sweetheart that always has a smile on her face.”

Gina is the proud owner of Bella’s Charming Creations, where she hand-makes soaps, shampoos, bath bombs, beard oils and lip balms. She also worked in construction with her husband before her injury.

Gina will most likely be in recovery for up to two years, but she is already showing promising signs. A small silver lining in this ordeal is that Gina suffered only superficial, first degree burns to her face, which have mostly already healed. Her hands are also intact, though she will need to do physical therapy to regain strength and use of her right arm.

She is continuing to get plenty of rest and focusing on regaining her strength.

The incident has reminded Scott of the importance of working smoke detectors, which he credits to alerting him to the situation. He also wants to remind the public to keep a fire extinguisher ready and available in the kitchen and to make sure all members of the home are aware of where it is located in an emergency.

The National Fire Protection Association reports that cooking fires are the No. 1 cause of home fires and home injuries, and cooking equipment is responsible for 49% of home fires.

When cooking with oil, NFPA offers the following recommendations: Heat oil slowly and always stay in the kitchen when frying, immediately turn off the burner if you notice smoke coming from the oil and always cook with a lid close by. If a fire occurs, slide the lid over the pot containing the oil and turn off the burner. Do not remove the lid because the fire could start again, and wait for it to cool.

Never throw water on a grease fire.

The family has received community support over the last two months, with two simultaneous GoFundMe campaigns organized by Scott’s place of work and family members to help with medical bills, household needs and familial support. Those wishing to donate to the family can do so here and here.

“I gotta say, to top it off, the love, the support, the overwhelming response from our community (is amazing),” Scott said. “Just really the outreach, the love that we’ve received from our people here in the community — calling all the time, checking on her, it’s just been beautiful.”

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Phoenix man to run through Pinal cities during trek across state

MARICOPA — Phoenix native Jimmy Scroggins is daring to do the near impossible: run 334 miles from west to east across Arizona to raise awareness and support for childhood depression by showing kids, “You can overcome any obstacle. You can do hard things.”

Scroggins, 31, set out on his cross-state run early Monday morning. He began his journey in Quartzsite along Interstate 10, but by the end of his scheduled journey that first day, he’d nearly had it.

“That first 15-mile stretch, it really challenged me,” Scroggins said. “It honestly almost broke me, and we weren’t even (far) into it.”

With hill after hill after hill, cars whizzing by at 75 mph and the Arizona sun beating down on his back at 109 degrees, Scroggins has done everything he can to motivate himself — FaceTime friends, identify the local wildlife jumping out from behind bushes and look at the debris of various discarded and forgotten objects strewn along I-10.

Scroggins will continue on his planned route, heading down Riggs Road onto State Route 347 on Saturday, cutting through Maricopa and continuing onto Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway toward Casa Grande. From that point, he’ll run toward Coolidge along State Route 87.

He had originally planned on finishing in Willcox, but a lot of his supporters voiced their desire to be there for his big finish, so instead he’ll be swinging back around from Coolidge into Fountain Hills to finish his run in the place that he calls home, south Phoenix.

“I decided that it would be pretty awesome and heartwarming for me to finish the run right where it all started for me, right over in south Phoenix,” Scroggins said. “I grew up on 16th Street and Southern. It was a pretty rough time for me growing up. A lot of times dealing with the anxiety of a neighborhood that was trying to conform me into something I didn’t wanna be.”

ksawyer / On the Go Maps  

Jimmy Scroggins’ 334-mile journey across Arizona passed through Pinal County on Saturday.

When Scroggins was 13, his mother was murdered by her boyfriend. He struggled to stay away from the gangs and drug dealing going on in his neighborhood and felt isolated after his mother’s death.

“I was just lost. I was really young, and I was trying to figure out life like anybody else and things were tough for me. I would walk to this community center pretty much every day after school, and I would go through the park, El Reposo Park, so I figured that it would be pretty fitting for me to finish there,” Scroggins said. “I rerouted the entire 334 miles to literally just go through like every city.”

The run is, in part, to help support his nonprofit foundation 4Life, which he operates with his best friend and business partner, Ernesto Jimenez. They focus on giving back to underprivileged youth through holiday meal programs, backpack giveaways and scholarship awards. Those following Scroggins’ journey across Arizona can donate per mile to help him achieve his goal.

But the run, he said, is also a representation of the hardships people overcome and of the resiliency of the human spirit. It is as much a journey of self for Scroggins as it is a journey to show others — and especially youth who face circumstances similar to his — that hard things can be their own reward.

And for Scroggins, this is a very hard task.

“I hate running with a passion, I’m like, ‘This is dumb,’” he laughed.

“You have those runners that are like, ‘Yeah, I go out and I run and I free my mind’ and that is not me, I am not that guy,” Scroggins said. “However, … it has been really humbling. I think I’ve literally probably cried throughout these first three days — today is not even over yet — more times than I’ve probably cried in my whole life.”

When he originally set out to do this, he sought help from his seasoned running peers who told him he had “terrible running form,” but he’s since figured out a slow and steady jogging pace for the duration of his run.

His wife, Virginia, and Jimenez cheer him on from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, crawling behind him on the right-hand shoulder as he jogs along. Even the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office came out to support him, offering a police escort for the first leg of his journey.

“My wife has been just absolutely phenomenal,” Scroggins said. “She’s been making sure that we’re able to just drive back and forth. And Ernie, they both have been with me every step of the way.”

At night, Scroggins has been staying in hotels and a camper, but he is close enough to his own home at this point in his journey he was able to head home to get a quick shower in before hitting the road again. He’s averaging about 15 to 20 miles a day and crashes hard at the end of each run.

His most important item? “My CamelBak (water bottle),” he said. “It is extremely hot. Just being able to make sure that I am adequately hydrated — it’s been absolutely critical.”

Scroggins plans to finish his race in a symbolic place, on a symbolic day: his birthday. On Aug. 29, he’s scheduled to hit the streets of Phoenix for his last stretch west down Camelback Road, where he will cross his finish line at the park that once was a negative place for him.

Those interested in cheering him on can donate money per mile he runs at, or head outside to wave at him as he runs by.