Campus program serving students with disabilities faces allegations of federal fraud

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

On paper, Sarah Funes is participating in a campus program that provides support for students with disabilities. But, she said she has never used any of its services and didn’t apply for admission.

Funes and Lisa Albertson, co-chairs of activist group Berkeley Disabled Students, or BDS, alleged that the campus has been counting students who never applied as participants in the TRiO at Disabled Students’ Program, or TRiO, to meet federal guidelines, misreporting the number of students being serviced. Albertson alleged she was involuntarily a part of the program from 2009-14.

UC Berkeley was awarded $300,902 this academic year to support a minimum of 250 students with disabilities through TRiO, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

While records show that 250 students are counted as part of this year’s program, TRiO program coordinator Juan Berumen could not account for how 205 of these students — including Funes — originally joined the program.

“Show me my signature on an application. Show me my application,” Funes said. “Show when and where I have been getting tutoring all these years. Show me improvement in my grades.”

Karen Nielson, director of the campus’s Disabled Students’ Program and TRiO, said TRiO is currently 100 percent federally compliant. But, Berumen contradicted Nielson’s statement, stating that TRiO will be in complete compliance with federal guidelines by fall 2017. Berumen acknowledged that there have been “questionable” practices in the program’s past.

“Show me my signature on an application. Show me my application. … Show when and where I have been getting tutoring all these years. Show me improvement in my grades.”

– Sarah Funes, co-chair of Berkeley Disabled Students

Whether or not the program is in compliance with federal guidelines, both Nielson and Berumen agreed that the program’s services are being underutilized but added that this problem is already being addressed.

Critics such as Funes and Albertson, however, alleged that the underutilization of TRiO’s services is indicative of fraud — evidence that TRiO is reporting to the federal government that 250 students are being serviced when that may not be the case.

“This is why we are looking for outside auditing — fraud on the backs of students with disabilities, who (members of the administration) say they are providing these services to, and they are not,” Albertson alleged.

Underutilized, underscrutinized?

Of this year’s 250 program participants, Berumen has received only six requests for academic tutoring services, according to his records. He also estimated that the events he has hosted for TRiO have garnered about eight to 10 attendees on average in the past year.

“TRiO services are being underutilized, (but) not because students don’t know they’re in TRiO,” Nielson said. “We’re thinking about how to make the application process more clear about what’s expected of the students, and moving forward, how to make more students more active in TRiO. (It’s a) problem we have had in the past, (an) old problem.”

Though the program operates within the campus’s Disabled Students’ Program, it functions and is financed independently of DSP. All TRiO participants are required to meet with a specialist to create a student success plan and attend academic and social workshops — actions that Funes never took, despite her continued inclusion in the program.

“(The) TRiO grant is more than tutoring,” Nielson said. “TRiO is a retention program, (with a) broad scope of services that help aid in retention. … TRiO is doing a reasonably good job at providing a range of services.”

But, Funes identified a disconnect between campus administrators and students regarding DSP services, noting that “so many people (are) saying so many different things, nobody knows what the truth is.”

Berumen said he has reached out to BDS but has never met with the group, adding that he believes there is some confusion about what the program does.

The concerns raised against TRiO are not the first in recent memory to plague campus programs designed to accommodate students with disabilities. Last fall, DSP announced that Workability-IV, a statewide Department of Rehabilitation program that provided career counseling to students with disabilities, was being canceled after the program was found to be noncompliant with state funding guidelines for years.

“There is a huge lack of transparency. … Now, we aren’t believing anything that is told to us unless it can be proven or backed up.”

– Lisa Albertson, co-chair of Berkeley Disabled Students

Additionally, the campus announced last month that it would restrict access to its online educational videos after a Department of Justice investigation found that many of the videos’ captions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There is a huge lack of transparency,” Albertson said. “Now, we aren’t believing anything that is told to us unless it can be proven or backed up.”

TRiO’s history of compliance

In 2015, an external auditor evaluated whether TRiO was in compliance with federal guidelines to assist the program in the development of its grant application.

The auditor, Kimberly Washington-Pearse, reported 23 “corrective citations” with the TRiO program that she found were inconsistent with federal regulations.

During the audit, DSP failed to provide Washington-Pearse with a list of TRiO participants from 2014-15, and various DSP staff members refused to participate in interviews.

“There was an assessment by a consultant (that found) serious violations of the grant,” Berumen said. “Not only was I in charge of resurrecting (the) program but also … every point that external evaluation brought up, (finding a) systematic way of addressing those noncompliance issues.”

According to Berumen, 45 of the 250 participants in TRiO joined under a formal application process during his tenure. He called the other 205 students — among them Funes — “legacy students” who were carried over into the program from previous semesters.

Nielson also could not account for how the legacy students were admitted, stating that their selections took place before she became the director of the program in July 2016.

“I’m a transparent person. I don’t like to hide anything,” Berumen said. “Were there some questionable practices happening before my arrival — a lot of students in TRiO that didn’t know they were in TRiO? Yeah.”

Funes said she maintains that she has never received services from TRiO and has trouble receiving other classroom accommodations from DSP. She added that she feels the campus has offered a “constant excuse” for why DSP is not working.

Berumen noted that factors beyond potential discrepancies in the admission process may contribute to low program participation.

“I’m a transparent person. I don’t like to hide anything. … Were there some questionable practices happening before my arrival — a lot of students in TRiO that didn’t know they were in TRiO? Yeah.”

— Juan Berumen, TRiO program coordinator

He said he believes that the low number of requests for academic tutoring, specifically, is partly due to the cancellation of a previous tutoring program conducted in collaboration with the Student Learning Center. He added the cancellation may have given students the impression that the program no longer offers any tutoring services.

Before the end of the semester, Berumen said, he wants to campaign to let students know that the TRiO program will offer tutoring next year. He also wants to create a “TRiO Advisory Board,” primarily made up of students in the program, to get more feedback.

“The only frustrating thing for me — there hasn’t been an overwhelming response that I (have been) waiting for,” Berumen said. “I want this program, everyone on this list, (to be) engaging as much as possible with me.”

A “perfect storm”

Albertson said she chose to attend UC Berkeley because of its history as the original birthplace of the disability rights movement but that she now finds herself dissatisfied with the services she receives on campus.

Georgina Kleege, a lecturer in the campus’s English department and co-director of the disability studies minor program, observed that changes in DSP and higher administrative personnel in recent years have created a “perfect storm” for gaps in services to fly under the radar.

“(The) Bay Area in general is kind of a mecca for disability rights. … You talk to disabled people all over the world, and they know Berkeley — it’s a very significant thing,” said Kleege, who is blind. “(But) in the last five to seven years, it seems like there’s been a deterioration in services for students in particular.”

Funes, who is vision-impaired, detailed multiple instances over recent semesters of difficulties receiving accommodations for her course readings and notes. Her difficulties in receiving accommodations have forced her to submit late requests to drop her courses.

Nielson said there has not been a lot of direct communication recently between her office and disability activists but that she regularly considers students’ most pressing concerns so that administrators can address them promptly.

Additionally, Berumen noted that he wants to rebuild the broken trust between students and administrators. He said he does not expect to have 100 percent satisfaction with his work but is open to as much feedback as possible. Nonetheless, he critiqued what he referred to as the “anti-institutionalist bravado” of some student activist groups.

“Students are too quick to protest, too quick to make demands, too quick to discredit,” Berumen said. “Crowding Upper Sproul is attention-grabbing (and) captures the imagination of the public, (but) that’s not how you institute real change. You got to be open to dialogue, you got to be accurate with the information you have.”

Kleege said not all students are dissatisfied; she knows some students with disabilities who feel as though their needs are being met by the campus administration. But, she expressed admiration for the recent student activism on campus for disabled rights.

“I know what it’s like to be labeled a troublemaker, that I have unrealistic expectations.”

 — Georgina Kleege, lecturer in campus’s English department

BDS staged its first protest last month, in which it sent a letter to campus administration demanding a budget increase for DSP, the hiring of disability-trained specialists and the inclusion of disability education in coursework.

“Because I was a disabled student myself … I know what it’s like to be labeled a troublemaker, that I have unrealistic expectations,” Kleege said. “I often felt like there was a failure. Was it because I couldn’t do that course, or they couldn’t make it work for me?”

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his incoming successor, Carol Christ, have offered to schedule a meeting between faculty and members of the campus community with disabilities to discuss their concerns. But, Albertson said their response was not satisfactory — she wants action, not talk.

Albertson and Funes said they do not believe campus administration is accommodating the needs of disabled students and feel disability is not a priority on campus.

“It is so incredibly stressful being a student here, being disabled here and getting people to do their jobs,” Funes said. I’m having to tell people not to come to this university. (UC Berkeley) is still my dream. I’m just fighting for it to be the dream I want it to be.”

Contact Bobby Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @bobbylee_dc.

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