News Media Update by Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen, Ph.D. - September 13, 2019

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Orange Unified School District News Media Update by Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen, Ph.D.

Mourning the loss of our student

The loss of Manny Perez, who died Monday night from injuries sustained in a tragic accident on campus, has shaken the El Modena High School community and caused sadness across our school district. Manny was well-liked by his classmates, aides, and staff. He will be greatly missed. We are heartbroken and our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends.

We have reached out to the family and continue to offer whatever comfort and support we can as his mother deals with this devastating loss. At the family’s request, however, all contact with her since Tuesday has been funneled through her attorney.

The Board of Education adjourned its public meeting early in honor of Manny’s memory so that staff and trustees could attend a student-organized vigil at El Modena on Thursday night. We hope that this event can be one step in unifying the campus and start a healing process as we all deal with this tragic situation.

District takes preventative steps to ensure safe use of golf carts on campus

Like many in our community, we have been wrestling with the question of how a parked golf cart can be operated by simply depressing the accelerator. The day after the accident, the district launched a thorough top-to-bottom audit of our entire fleet of golf carts. They were checked mechanically for defects, and several were sent in for maintenance. We brought in experts from the manufacturers to help with inspections.

We have 26 electric golf carts servicing our secondary schools. They provide essential mobility to move around campus, especially in emergency situations. Students often ride as passengers when they are transported from classrooms to the office. Manny himself enjoyed opportunities to ride as a passenger in the golf cart.

In the weeks ahead, we will use the results of that audit to decide how to upgrade or replace golf carts so their accelerators cannot be operational without a key in place. You have our commitment that we will make whatever adjustments we need to ensure that no person can operate the vehicle without the key in place. We have embraced our responsibility to make sure our carts do not pose a threat to student safety.

Compassionate release of video images from security cameras

El Modena High School recently installed a network of video security cameras. We have used video footage to trace the sequence of events leading up to the golf cart crash. Those images provide a factual record of what happened. Our public statements have been based on what we saw on those video clips.

Out of compassion and respect for the family, the district chose not to release the video footage publicly. We chose to spare the family the distress of seeing those images posted and shared on social media and in news stories. Manny’s right to privacy as a student with special needs did not end with his death. At an appropriate time, we will be providing that footage to the family’s legal counsel as evidence of what happened during the accident.

Several things are clear from the video of the incident:

At no time was Manny left unattended. His one-to-one aide and a second aide were always next to him or near him as he moved through campus.

As they approached the parked golf cart, Manny ran ahead about ten feet to get into the passenger seat. He stayed in the passenger seat for approximately 30 seconds even though the aides were both trying to persuade him to get out and go into the cafeteria for the nutrition break.

The aides were following standard prevention protocol by using verbal de-escalation prompts and redirection, instead of physical efforts to get him out of the cart. The aides were unaware that the cart was operational at the time. Our Special Education staff are dedicated and committed professionals who care deeply for the safety and well-being of their students. 

Once Manny depressed the accelerator, both aides aggressively tried to stop the vehicle from moving forward. One aide even physically held onto the back of the cart, as it was moving.

We are still trying to verify who may have actually witnessed the crash. We know that some staff and students saw the paramedics and staff providing medical attention to Manny after the incident. We will know more as the investigation and interviews continue. 

The sequence of events from the crash to when Manny was placed in the ambulance are clear in the video. There were few signs of trauma and Manny was not bleeding. He was conscious and complained of stomach pain. The nurse assessed his condition and decided a 911 call was needed. The office immediately made the call.  Within 4 minutes of placing that call, paramedics arrived at the school and then transported him to the hospital.  

Confusing misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, and rumors are causing turmoil at El Modena

Unfortunately, Manny’s death has sparked an undercurrent of discord on the campus. The student walk-out demonstration on Thursday involving about sixty students was filled with angry and profane taunts.  Certain students were physically threatened and verbally abused by some demonstrators. Anonymous death threats have been made in the past few days. Staff have been called “murderers.”  All of these divisive actions have increased tension on campus.

The district has called in trained facilitators and advisors from the Orange County Department of Education to work alongside counselors, psychologists, and teacher leaders to help heal these divisions and promote open dialogue as students go through this shared grieving experience. We are seeing progress as restorative circles and other safe spaces are enabling students to communicate their feelings in positive and mutually supportive ways.

The El Modena High School campus community needs an opportunity to get out of the media spotlight and begin the healing process.  If there are lessons to be learned or shared because of this tragedy, we will vigorously pursue them. If there are policies or practices that can further enhance student safety, we will adopt them.

Once again, I am struggling to find the words to convey the shock and heartbreak we are all feeling. Nevertheless, we mourn this loss together, as one community that has so often demonstrated strength, resilience, faith and compassion. 

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The Orange Unified School District educates approximately 28,000 K-12 grade students in the Cities of Orange, Villa Park, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and unincorporated county areas.  In partnership with our community, we provide a safe, equitable, and innovative culture of learning for each scholar to have a competitive EDGE as a leader.