Disabled music student fights a noteworthy battle Flute player seeks access to music class at Catonsville High School.

July 24, 1991|By Edward L. Heard Jr. | Edward L. Heard Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

For the past three years, Randi Wixom, 16, who suffers from an undiagnosed neurological disease, has had to use crutches or a wheelchair to get around.

To take her mind off her condition, Wixom plays the flute -- at home and, until last November, in a music class at Catonsville High.

In November, the school prohibited the honor student from participating in the class because it feared for her safety and its liability if she were injured going to the class, accessible only by stairs. Wixom uses an elevator to get to other classes.

Wixom is fighting the action.

For five hours yesterday, the U.S. District Court in Baltimore was the scene where plaintiff's attorneys argued that the Baltimore County Board of Education should provide handicap access devices for Wixom to attend a music class, while the defense questioned the feasibility of such demands.

Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered a telephone conference among himself and the attorneys Monday to discuss a solution.

The preliminary injunction hearing came after Wixom filed suit against the school board this year because she was prohibited from at tending music class due to her problem of maneuvering down the three flights of stairs to get to rehearsals.

Timothy M. Cook, Wixom's attorney, attempted to show that handicapped students should not be deprived of classes offered to other students. Otherwise, Wixom is a victim of discrimination, said Cook, director of the National Disability Action Center in Washington.

Leslie Robert Stellman and Benjamin W. Hahn, attorneys for the school system, said that although the board empathized with Wixom, school officials cannot fund a project to construct

handicapped devices at Catonsville because of a limited budget.

Meanwhile, Wixom sat in her wheelchair listening. She has what her doctor calls an undiagnosed neurological disease.

"When I was 8 I just started to walk funny," she said during a court recess. "It just got progressively worse."

Wixom said her band class is a social outlet, where she can relax and enjoy playing the flute, which she has played since the fifth grade. Although she enjoys English and history and she gets A's and B's in her other courses, she said music is her favorite class.

During her freshman and sophomore years, Wixom used her crutches as she found her way down to the music room, three flights below the auditorium.

But when she regularly used her wheelchair in the 11th grade, she had to remove herself to the floor, and travel step by step in a sitting position until she reached the band room, unless someone carried her.

That's when Catonsville Principal Stephen W. Fisher stepped in.

Fisher said he became concerned about Wixom's safety and the school's liability.

Fisher told Wixom she would not be able to attend music class there because it was not easily accessible, but that she could be transported to Owings Mills High School's accessible band class or have a private tutor. Moving the band would be too complicated, he said.

"It hurts me as an educator to say 'We can't do this,' " Fisher said. After Christmas through June, Wixom had private flute lessons, but she said it was not the same.

"It just didn't work," Wixom said. James Wharton, the music department chairman and instrumental music teacher, testified that relocating the music room would be inconvenient and could ultimately affect the band's performance.

Some other areas in the building considered for his class, such as the cafeteria, may not have the appropriate acoustics modifications, Wharton said.

Robert Reuter, of Access Systems, which designs handicapped access machines, argued that there are several ways to allow Wixom to attend band practice, including ramps and rising platforms.

School system attorneys said these alternative suggestions were not offered to them earlier, and they seemed willing to discuss the new options.

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