Board seeks funds spent fighting special ed suit Plaintiffs' lawyer cites 'act of war'

November 18, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

The Baltimore County school board wants its money back -- the $50,000 it has spent since July defending the school system against a lawsuit brought by parents and organizations opposed to changes in its special education programs.

A federal judge dismissed the suit last month and the plaintiffs decided soon thereafter to drop the suit.

The board says it has a "fiscal responsibility" to act. Last week, the U.S. District Court in Baltimore approved the board's request to recover legal fees from the Washington, D.C., law firm that represented the families and organizations. The board has until Dec. 1 to file the motion.

"We don't do this lightly, said Leslie R. Stellman, the board's attorney. "We determined that the taxpayers and schoolchildren should not have to pay for this lawsuit."

Beth Goodman, who represented the plaintiffs, called the board's action an "act of war," a tactic to quiet future dissenters and another indication that the school system can only respond "in a threatening and intimidating manner."

"Obviously, we will be responding to them in court."

"Something like this sends such a clear message to parents: It says don't mess with us," said Irene Spencer, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maryland and one of the plaintiffs.

"It's sending a very clear message to other attorneys, too."

School Superintendent Dr. Stuart Berger sees a different message: "Don't file frivolous lawsuits against us," he said.

The original suit charged the school system with "dismantling" its special education schools and using fear and intimidation to get parents and teachers to agree to placements that would fit the system's plan rather than a child's needs. About 350 children were transferred out of the five special education centers this year, as the school system moved quickly toward what is known as "inclusion."

In August, the plaintiffs sought an emergency order to stop the transfers, but U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II denied the request, calling it too expensive and harmful to the children.

The case then went before Judge John R. Hargrove, who dismissed it.

In his opinion, Judge Hargrove said that the families had not taken every opportunity to get their children placed properly within the system before filing suit.

Soon after that, the plaintiffs dropped their suit.

At that time, Mr. Stellman said the school system would take no further action. Dr. Berger, one of the defendants, said the school system had been vindicated and he welcomed the opportunity to "get back to the business of educating children."

Last week, however, the board decided to try to recover the legal fees, after receiving a report from the Maryland State Department of Education.

The report said the schools had complied with state and federal regulations in informing parents of their rights in determining how and where their disabled children should be educated.

The report was in response to parents' complaints.

This report convinced the board "the plaintiffs' attorneys had acted in bad faith in pursuing this lawsuit," according to the board's motion.

Mr. Stellman said the school system could also recover any additional legal fees incurred in trying to get back "upwards of $50,000," it has already spent.

Ms. Spencer said the plaintiffs have been billed for $116,000 in legal fees, but are obligated to pay only $25,000.

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