Suit filed over special education transfers Case disputes plan to move children to neighborhood schools

July 24, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Groups representing teachers and disabled children and five individual families filed suit yesterday against the Baltimore County school system and the state Board of Education over the county's decision to move hundreds of disabled youngsters from special education centers to neighborhood schools.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the suit charges the school system with "implementing a policy under which the individual needs of children with disabilities are being ignored." It also alleges that administrators practiced "coercion, intimidation and threats against parents and special education teachers" who sought to exercise their rights under federal laws governing the education of students with disabilities.

Even as the long-threatened suit was filed, the school department appeared to be moving to quiet the noisy controversy that erupted when it decided to move more than 200 learning-disabled students from the Chatsworth School in Reisterstown into special education classes in neighborhood schools.

The county is moving smaller numbers of youngsters from its other centers -- White Oak, Ridge/Ruxton, Battle Monument and Rolling Road.

Director of Special Education Marjorie Rofel, who was also named as a defendant, said yesterday that she has asked the principals of the county's five special schools to contact parents who are not satisfied with their children's placements.

All families of children who attended Chatsworth last year will receive a letter "saying if you are not happy, let's sit down and talk about the possibilities," Ms. Rofel said.

"What we're trying to do is to make sure that parents are comfortable with their children's placement for next year." She denied that the county's actions were a response to the threat of a lawsuit.

But because of these actions, at least some of the issues may be resolved out of court, said Beth Goodman, attorney for the plaintiffs.

In a letter to Superintendent Stuart Berger, Ms. Goodman wrote, "We recently have learned that [the schools] may be interested in trying to resolve at least some of the issues" and has given the school system until Wednesday to propose a resolution. That letter and a copy of the lawsuit were not delivered until after 5 p.m. yesterday. Dr. Berger had already gone for the day and had not seen the lawsuit, his secretary said.

If a resolution cannot be reached, Ms. Goodman said she would seek an injunction to halt the changes until teachers, parents and students have a chance to go through the proper process of evaluation and placement. An injunction would cause considerable problems for the school system because many special education teachers and administrators have already moved to their new schools.

Students from Deer Park Elementary, which is being renovated, are scheduled to attend Chatsworth in September, along with a small number of emotionally disturbed and learning disabled youngsters still assigned there.

Named as defendants are the county board of education, Dr. Berger, Ms. Rofel, the Maryland State Department of Education, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Assistant State Superintendent Richard J. Steinke.

Those bringing the suit are: the Learning Disabilities Associations of Maryland and Metropolitan Baltimore, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, and five individuals or couples on behalf of children who are being moved.

The suit asks that the school system be prevented from moving any student from the special education schools or from separate special education classes in neighborhood schools until all legal processes have been properly carried out. It also asks that these centers and classrooms "be fully restored to their original complement of teachers, services and equipment."

It also asks that the school system be prohibited from "interfering with teachers' full and free communication with parents and other appropriate individuals regarding the educational needs of individual children with disabilities."

Under federal law, each disabled child must have an Individual Education Plan that spells out what services he or she needs and how they will be provided. Parents, teachers and administrators are to participate in annual meetings to develop and evaluate these plans.

When the school system started moving rapidly toward inclusion -- the placement of disabled children in neighborhood schools rather than in special centers -- many county parents charged that their children's plans were written for the convenience of the school system.

Some special education teachers have told parents they were asked to lie in these meetings, so that the child could be moved from the schools.

School administrators have staunchly denied that staff members were asked to lie or that the individual plans were not suited to a child's needs. They noted the schools are under federal orders to accelerate the process of transferring special education students to neighborhood schools.

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