Student vindicated by federal ruling BALTIMORE COUNTY

December 22, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

The federal Department of Education has ruled that the Baltimore County school department failed to follow appropriate procedures in handling the case of a middle school student whose ability to write was limited after she was injured in a gym class.

The parents of the girl, who was at Pine Grove Middle School, filed their handwritten complaint with the department in May, following what they claimed was over two years of frustration in dealing with the school.

Ronald and Arlene Heywood's daughter, Christine, had trouble writing for more than a few minutes at a time after fracturing her breastbone on the parallel bars during a sixth-grade gym class in December 1989.

She was excused from gym for the rest of sixth grade but was reinjured in a seventh-grade gym class the following October. She spent the rest of that school year being educated at home before returning to Pine Grove for eighth grade.

Throughout that period, the Heywoods claim, school officials did not properly adjust Christine's classroom requirements to fit her physical problems despite their persistent efforts.

The Department of Education's civil rights office found that the school system failed to evaluate Christine under Section 504 provisions of a 1973 law that bans discrimination against handicapped students.

The department also said the school improperly prohibited Christine from taking the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test because of her writing limitations. The test is used to evaluate schools and not individual students.

And though the Heywoods did not raise the issue, the department also ruled that the school system has not provided proper notification of its nondiscriminatory policy to students and parents.

The 10-page report, signed by Robert A. Smallwood, the civil rights director in the department's Philadelphia regional office, states that "no formal Section 504 evaluation was ever done," despite numerous doctors' notes and staff recommendations.

"Rather, the student's teachers and various school staff decided on an ad hoc basis that when the student got tired of writing, she should so inform the teacher," the report said.

On the other hand, the report said that Pinewood's decision to ban Mrs. Heywood from school property in May was was not a retaliatory action.

In a compliance agreement signed by school superintendent Stuart Berger, who assumed his post in July, the system agreed to conduct appropriate evaluations "of any student who, because of handicap, needs, or is believed to need, special education or related aids and services . . ." Teachers and administrators at Pine Grove are to be informed of these requirements.

The system also agreed to put its nondiscriminatory policy in its brochures and student handbooks, along with the names and phone numbers of administrators responsible for enforcing it.

"I was basically very pleased with the decision," said Dr. Leona Gruzynski, who as the system's director of pupil services is in charge of Section 504 compliance.

"I think it shows that the actions that were taken at the school level were not malicious though they were not in strict compliance."

She said many teachers do not understand that special education evaluations are needed for students who have physical and not just mental problems.

Mrs. Heywood claimed that there were several factual errors in the report and said some of the actions taken to help Christine did not occur until after she had filed her federal complaint.

"I just don't understand why it took 2 1/2 years and a federal investigation to get this thing resolved," she said, noting that her daughter is now doing fine at Parkville Senior High under a program designed for her after a Section 504 evaluation.

"I was happy to do it because I want to do everything I can to help, so the next person who comes along with a problem like this won't have to go through what we went through," she said.

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