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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 11, 2001

On Schools
Ex-student named Felix turns 28

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Happy birthday, Jennifer Felix.

As Jennifer blew out the candles on her cake on a recent Sunday, those who gathered around couldn't help but think of all the things that have been done for Hawai'i's disabled children in Jennifer's name.

It was Jennifer's surname that is attached to the landmark Felix consent decree, which has rocked Hawai'i's education system to its foundation.

Stricken by a virus as an infant, Jennifer is mentally retarded, suffers from seizures and is visually impaired. Those who meet her are struck by her affectionate nature — newcomers are often greeted with a hug and kiss within minutes.

Jennifer turned 28 last month and, making the celebration that much more special, she recently moved into her own apartment in Wahiawa. That's a major accomplishment for someone who has spent her life in therapeutic foster homes and hospitals.

Attorney Eric Seitz, who represents Jennifer, first met her when she was 15 and in high school on Maui.

"She was basically spending all of her days at school in the bathroom because that was the time-out place; that was the only place that they could contain her," Seitz remembered.

Seitz successfully sued to get Jennifer the help she was entitled to under federal law. When he and other attorneys went on to file a class-action lawsuit for children with mental disabilities in 1993, it bore her name.

Instead of fighting the suit in court, the state signed the consent decree in 1994, agreeing to improve special-education services as required by federal law.

It has been a long road.

Seven years later, after missing numerous deadlines, the state is racing to avoid a federal court takeover of the system next month. While discontent is still not hard to find among some parents and advocates, many observers say Hawai'i's public schools have made huge improvements in how they serve their disabled students.

The change came too late to help Jennifer. With no appropriate services in Hawai'i, she spent the rest of her school career at a community home in Texas. But some believe that the momentum generated by the consent decree has rippled into the wider community, resulting in improvements for disabled adults beyond the school system.

Thanks to new services, Jennifer is now living in her own pink apartment building, her room complete with a fish tank, green rattan furniture and a view over Lake Wilson.

Her mother, Frankie Servetti-Coleman, never thought she'd see the day.

Her daughter still needs around-the-clock-care and always will. But she is an active participant in her own life: She works putting together airline headsets, she helps shop for her food and there was no doubting her pleasure as she unwrapped her birthday gifts recently to find nail polish, clothes and fashion accessories.

It's the kind of life that years before was no more than a dream.

When the Felix consent decree is discussed these days, it is in the realm of endless meetings, federal court hearings and a legislative investigation that aims to uncover suspected mismanagement of the millions of dollars being channeled into special education.

Jennifer's birthday was a reminder of what it really is all about.

Reach Alice Keesing at akeesing@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.