School Yard Brawl, with Lawyers

November 22, 1993

It's hard to escape the feeling that children have taken over the Baltimore County school administration and the teachers union, especially after the latest shenanigans featuring education leaders and their respective lawyers.

Some background: Four months ago, a coalition of five families of special education students, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Learning Disabilities Association of Maryland filed a lawsuit to scuttle the school system's special-education reforms. The petition was eventually dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge, who ruled the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative options within the school system.

Last month, the plaintiffs decided to drop the suit. They explained they were "walking away" in order to lay this bitter issue to rest. No doubt they were also convinced their case had run out of steam. Still, the "walking away" quote was the mature stance for them to take. So was Superintendent Stuart Berger's comment at the time that he wanted to set aside the acrimony that had nearly upended the school system last summer and move forward with "the business of educating children."

But now school officials, egged on by their lawyers, want to recoup the roughly $50,000 they spent in fighting the lawsuit. The bill for the fees would be handed not to the plaintiffs but to their Washington lawyers on the grounds that they have acted in bad faith. The officials say these are tax dollars that could be put to good use in the schools. In angry response, the plaintiffs say they will pick up their case again and appeal the District Court's dismissal of the original lawsuit.

So much for the lofty talk about "walking away" and getting on with "the business of educating children." This feels more like the business of acting like children, as in a school yard fight where the combatants trade charges of who hit whom first.

After last summer's bad blood, you would think the school board would eat the $50,000 -- a pittance in a half-billion dollar budget -- to restore peace to a system that sorely needs it. Meanwhile, if TABCO and the other plaintiffs are so upset by the board's action, they should work quietly behind the scenes to end this ugly dispute. No one, however, seems willing to take the high road in the matter. As one of the key figures said, "How many times can we get pounded without responding?"

Sounds like the playground method of handling a conflict. The main difference is that kids use fists instead of lawyers.

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