Panel says schools may have broken federal law Students shifted in Balto. County

August 13, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

Baltimore County's school system may have violated federal law when it moved hundreds of disabled children from special education centers to neighborhood schools, a panel reviewing the moves has concluded.

The six-member panel, which released preliminary findings last night, said interviews with parents and school officials and scrutiny of letters and documents showed the school system made some of the moves before completing a required review of individual students' needs.

Some of the reviews that had been performed also lacked required information used to assess severely disabled students' needs, the panel found.

At a meeting attended by about 120 people in County Council chambers in Towson, the panel also faulted Superintendent Stuart Berger's reassignment or demotion of about 40 principals and assistants. The superintendent, the panel concluded, based the moves on recommendations of 14 top administrators and gave "virtually no weight to the individuals' prior performance."

A task force appointed by the school board president last month to look into controversial decisions orchestrated by Dr. Berger hired the investigative panel, which consists of an attorney, a special education expert and four law students.

During its investigation, the panel interviewed 81 people and reviewed reams of documents and correspondence. Members also solicited comments -- and got plenty: 282 letters and more than 100 recorded telephone messages.

Dr. Berger declined to comment last night on the panel's findings.

The relocation of students with disabilities and the reassignment of administrators brought a torrent of criticism directed at Dr. Berger in June, when hundreds staged protests and rallies and vented their rage in meeting rooms, on radio talk shows and in letters to newspapers.

Margaret Kiley, a Towson State University professor serving on the investigative panel, presented the findings on the relocation of disabled students.

"The process of determining where these students are placed . . . may be seriously flawed," she said.

Federal law requires that a child's teachers and counselors draw up an "individual education plan" devising the most effective course for that child, then decide on an appropriate program. But some parents -- the panel did not say how many -- claimed the school system relocated their children before completion of the reviews.

The district moved far too quickly and made rash decisions in the transfers as part of an "inclusion" policy shifting disabled children into regular classrooms, the panel found. Parents of disabled children told the panel the school system ignored their fears that their children would be moved out of special education centers into classrooms taught by teachers lacking vital training.

The panel's presentation came hours after a federal judge refused to block the plan to move disabled children to neighborhood schools.

Groups representing county teachers and families of disabled children had sought an emergency order to halt the plan, calling it "dismantling" of special education schools and classes. The opponents of the plan contended it violated federal law.

Rejecting the bid for a restraining order, U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II said reversing the plan would cost $4 million to $5 million and would harm the school system and taxpayers more than going ahead with it would harm the children. The plaintiffs said they'll seek an injunction to stop the plan.

Like the decision to move disabled students, Dr. Berger's reassignment or demotion of principals and assistants also drew criticism from the investigative panel last night.

A member of the panel, Baltimore attorney Michael Foreman, a specialist in employment discrimination, said the investigation revealed widespread sentiment that Dr. Berger acted arbitrarily, creating an "atmosphere of fear and intimidation."

Dr. Berger based the decisions solely on the "subjective recommendations of 14 individuals sitting around a conference table," Mr. Foreman said. "Virtually no weight was given to the individuals' performance as reflected in the employees' performance evaluations," he added.

When interviewed by the panel, Dr. Berger said he considered the evaluations "not particularly relevant" because most of those transferred or demoted had "outstanding" reviews, Mr. Foreman said.

Neither Dr. Berger nor the board made any effort to tell the affected employees, who learned of the rule change only when they were told in June of their impending moves, Mr. Foreman said.

The administrators who recommended the changes met in the spring, when they suggested that principals and assistants be promoted, demoted or left in their existing jobs, Dr. Berger told the panel. Mr. Foreman said Dr. Berger conceded the process was "very subjective" and argued that many of the principals and assistant principals had to be moved because they lacked commitment to "site-based management," giving individual schools more autonomy and accountability.

Dr. Berger told the panel he moved others because they had poor "interpersonal skills" or lacked "vision," Mr. Foreman said.

The task force, set up by school board President Alan Leberknight, is to review the panel's findings before making its recommendations to the school board by September, said Sanford Teplitzky, task force chairman.

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