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Wheelchair Mom Banished to Basement at Fox Elementary

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Brightly painted murals line the walls of William F. Fox Elementary School's basement cafeteria. But in the after-hours emptiness, the dank gloom of the low-ceilinged space overwhelms the place.

It's PTA night upstairs in the auditorium and the halls are alive. Students are presenting a musical review for parents. In the basement, bound by her wheelchair and by the school's noncompliance for more than a decade with federal law, Antoinette Sweeney sits in the half-lit gloom.

"I'm really angry," says Sweeney, whose twin 10-year-old daughters, Alicia and Aaliyah, are upstairs singing and dancing. It's not the first time Sweeney has sat alone in the school basement during school functions.

At Halloween, she sat in the same basement cafeteria, missing out on seeing her daughters win their category in a school costume contest.

"I was a little bit sad, but I was happy they could enjoy it," she says, through tears, her voice breaking as her daughters -- just finished with their program — bound down the stairs to shower her with hugs. "I missed it all."

Sweeney says that as much the school's front steps present an insurmountable obstacle to her access, so too do the attitudes that pervade the culture of Richmond Public Schools. She relates various occasions when she's been turned away from the school by administrative staff because, she's told, nobody has time to meet her at the cafeteria door to let her in.

"They should be bending over backward to make any accommodation to make her feel welcome at that school," says Vickie Beatty, a party to a since-settled lawsuit seeking Richmond's compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. "We can make these schools accessible, but it doesn't mean we can change people's attitude once they get in the building. That will probably be more difficult than making these schools accessible."

Fox is among the overwhelming majority of Richmond's nearly 50 school buildings that remain out of compliance with ADA requirements, not to mention a two-year-old settlement agreement signed by the School Board and a group of parents who sued the district for discrimination against people with disabilities.

It's also one of a handful of school buildings that soon may see changes to make it accessible to students and parents like Sweeney: The School Board's budget set aside a bit more than $300,000 for ADA compliance this year, and Fox is among schools slated for accessibility overhauls.

At Fox, money has been allocated for a ramp, a rail system, a rubberized surface on the playground and five disability-accessible toilets, says Beatty.

But Fox's modifications are "still in the design phase," according to schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby, citing the district's ADA coordinator, Aisha Shamburger. And the entire process of achieving ADA compliance is also still at the starting block, Cosby says: "We're in the process of establishing a schedule for the 40 schools still in need of modification."



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