ECISD trustee apologizes over “special-ed” remark

Edinburg CISD Board Secretary Robert Peña, Jr. issued a statement Wednesday evening apologizing for a comment he made during a board meeting Tuesday evening.

Peña made the comment after Board President Oscar Salinas realized he was the only member of the board to have received a copy of questions submitted by the community regarding the upcoming semester.

Salinas joked that it was because he was the president.

“You’re special ed. That’s cause your special ed.,” Peña said while other attendees chuckled.

In the statement, Peña wrote that he was at fault for making the joke, thanking the parents and advocacy groups who had reached out to him over the incident.

“Of course, this is inexcusable,” part of the statement read. “However, when I make a mistake, I have the integrity to admit my fault. I would personally like to apologize to Oscar, as well as our community. After having served our community in various capacities for many years, I understand that even a moment in jest can be insensitive to those we serve.”

The statement came after community members who watched the video of the meeting began voicing their discontent, including Debra Tomai. Tomai, who is the parent of a 9-year-old ECISD student who receives special education services, says she was shocked by the offhand remark.

“That’s just disturbing. I think under no circumstances should anyone involved in my child’s education use the term ‘special education’ as if it were an insult,” she said. “I don’t understand how a board member could just casually talk that way. I think board members are supposed to be an example to the district in terms of how they view students and programs.

“You don’t expect anyone in leadership to use your kid as an insult.”

Tomai, who is a founder of the Rio Grande Valley Down Syndrome Association, said she reached out to Peña, Salinas and Superintendent Gilbert Garza, Jr. on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to be part of cancel culture or anything like that, but I do want people to know that their words matter and that they can do better, and that all students deserve a good, respectful education,” she said, noting that the effort echoes an ongoing drive by her organization to end the use of terms that devalue individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Other community members voiced their opinions on the incident as well, including ECISD Trustee Mike Farias, who wrote about it in a Facebook post.

“This kind of mentality can not be allowed to exist in our society much less in our own district. I have received numerous calls from ECISD parents, family and friends who are personally offended as I am,” part of the post read. “Our district serves over 2,600 students within our Special Ed department and they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as every other student.”

Peña replied to Tomai’s email Wednesday afternoon, she said, agreeing to meet with her Saturday. Tomai says she appreciates the trustee’s willingness to meet and hopes the incident is an opportunity to implement district wide training on inclusiveness training and best practices for students with disabilities.

“The best case is it’s an opportunity for education,” she said.