In the College of the Canyons library is a black three-ring binder called the ADA Transition Plan. At about four inches thick, it runs 295 pages and details the more than 6,000 instances the school was found noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as recommendations on how to fix them and the expected completion dates.
It’s not known what has been fixed because the plan has not been updated, although many projects were supposed to be completed by the last day of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Other projects are not supposed to be finished until Dec. 31, 2030. College spokesman Eric Harnish emailed to say the school is finishing Phase 1, which focuses on replacing doors. Phase 2, which is scheduled to start later this year, addresses access and paths of travel, including parking lots and walkways. A third phase will address bathrooms and disabled seating in public areas.
The Board of Trustees will receive a full update from Vice President of Facilities, Planning, Operations and Construction Jim Schrage in August, Harnish and board president Michael Berger said.
COC is one of the few of the state’s 114 community college campuses that has such a plan, several people said. The reason it exists in the first place is because of a lawsuit.
Julio Ochoa, who was 28 and disabled from a motorcycle accident when he filed suit April 3, 2013 in Superior Court, alleged that the college “failed to remove these physical barriers to ensure that each of its programs, services, and activities are readily accessible to and useable by persons with mobility disabilities.”
The suit named numerous areas: parking lots and curbs, classrooms, the library, cafeteria, restrooms, gathering areas and sidewalks and other paths of travel with excessive slopes that made it difficult, if not impossible, for Ochoa to get around in his wheelchair.
“Due to his disabilities, Plaintiff (was) unable to independently and safely use public facilities that are not designed, constructed or altered in compliance with applicable accessibility standards for use by disabled persons, without placing himself at significant risk of injury,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff has suffered disability discrimination, deterrence, humiliation, emotional distress, and embarrassment, all to his damage.”
Two years later, the sides settled. Included in the settlement was the school paying Ochoa $270,000 “if my notes are correct,” COC lawyer Terry Tao said on a Feb. 21, 2018 video detailing the updates to the transition plan, with another $155,000 in attorney fees. COC also agreed to make 1,769 changes, down from tens of thousands the plaintiff originally wanted. Finally, Ochoa could return and see the progress made (Ochoa couldn’t be reached; his attorney, Jeff Harrison, didn’t return calls).
Tao added that even though some deadlines are still many years away, it’s possible additional extensions can be granted, provided there’s proof of dealing and making progress with the Division of the State Architect (DSA), one of the agencies in charge of overseeing ADA compliance.
One thing was certain: “This campus was identified as having some significant ADA issues,” Tao said on the video.
In addition to personal instances where Ochoa believed he was impeded, the lawsuit named other places the school should fix, including various athletic facilities, a coffee kiosk and the women’s restrooms.
Tao said Ochoa signed up for disabled student programs and services but didn’t use them, which contributed to him ending up in non-accessible classrooms.
Several Canyons officials said the lawsuit was one of several in which the same attorneys went from school to school looking for opportunities to sue. Tao said Harrison’s firm sued UC Riverside, Riverside Community College, the Los Angeles Community College District, Chapman University and “a bunch of campuses from Newport Beach to us.”
“Our impression was that it was about money in some respects,” Tao said. (The Gazette found proof that the firm sued Pierce College in 2008.)
Still, after settling and agreeing to make 1,769 fixes, the school decided to expand its transition plan and look at every single possible instance of ADA non-compliance. One reason was money: No one wanted someone else to find something else that’s ADA non-compliant and bring another suit. Architect Greg Sun said in the 2018 video that a school could be subject to $4,000 per violation. This meant that COC could have paid as much as $7,076,000 plus attorney fees this time.
Another reason, Schrage said on the video, is a desire to be a fully accessible campus.
“We’re not trying to shuck and jive here,” he said. “We want full accessibility. We’re doing everything we can to make this accessible, and to maintain that accessibility.”
As a result, the school contracted PBWS Architects to survey the entire Valencia campus. Tao called it “an unfunded mandate” because the college doesn’t get any money to make ADA fixes.
Tao said the state inspected 41 buildings and 154 acres covering 793,000 square feet, with COC officials following along, trying to get an idea of the cost.
“I don’t remember the cost,” Berger said. “It was extremely expensive.”
Harnish said they found approximately 5,000 additional items; he added that not every item is a separate violation. “For example, a restroom that requires the grab bars all be raised an eighth of an inch could account for as many as 20 items,” he wrote.
Board member Edel Alonso said she spent hours counting all violations in the transition plan and came up with 6,859.
Some could be considered trivial. For example, an accessible parking space in lot 14 is too narrow by .63 inch.
Some could be considered significant: Rooms in Mentry Hall don’t have enough knee and toe space under tables and desks, the sidewalk near the softball field is almost a yard too narrow, and Pico Canyon Hall lockers are inaccessible.
Then there’s four buildings, Bonelli Hall, Boykin Hall, Towsley Hall and West P.E., whose repairs Tao said would be so difficult to bring into ADA compliance that they will be done last in hopes that state comes up with the money to repair or replace them. A future bond issue could be a solution, and Harnish said that some Measure M and Measure E funds are being used. But Berger said, “I don’t remember that being a part of any long-term planning for us.”
Sun said state law requires entrances to be first priority, so doors made up the first phase. The focus was to make doors accessible, including changing knobs for levers and increasing door widths. Kirstyn Bonneau, a PBWS Architects associate, said on the video they looked at between 2,200 and 2,500 doors.
More recently, board member Joan MacGregor said, the locks were changed so they could be locked from the inside.
Since the plan in the library is not updated, very few know exactly what has been completed. Berger said he asked Schrage last month for an update.
“I know that we are – and I’ve asked a lot of questions over the years – it was reported that, as far as the timeline, we are ahead of schedule,” Berger said. “That doesn’t mean we are ahead on every single thing. But the majority of the projects that are online are ahead of schedule. I’m waiting for the August report to get the details.”
Alonso and MacGregor said they have asked for updates, but they know things are getting done because items come to the board for approval.
“I know we’re making progress, but I don’t know how many identified violations have been fixed,” Alonso said. Schrage didn’t return phone calls, but he said on the video he had made numerous purchase orders for new ADA-compliant furniture “for two years.”
Alonso openly wondered if all of this could have been avoided. Tao said communication would have been key.
“How well did you handle the student? How well did you communicate with them? Were you on them right away? Did you make sure that they were properly accommodated?” he said. “Because the law is somewhat unforgiving, and since it is so unforgiving, if somebody’s upset, they have options with regards to using the legal process, and under (the law), they’re entitled not only to their damages but also to their attorneys’ fees.”