NAACP airs grievances of disabled

March 13, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore County school and NAACP officials clashed during competing news conferences yesterday over allegations of physical abuse and sexual harassment of special-needs students placed in regular schools last fall.

Dr. Bernetha George, head of the county NAACP's education committee, called a news conference at the Banneker Community Center in Catonsville to demand a "thorough, fair investigation, resulting in solutions that will remedy these situations."

Among those who showed up were school officials, whom Dr. George barred from her news conference.

After she was finished, the school group, headed by northeastern area Superintendent Stephen Jones, held an impromptu news conference outside the center. Dr. George occasionally participated in their news conference.

Dr. Jones said that Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger appointed a team on Friday to investigate the NAACP's allegations, after Dr. George had sent him by fax the NAACP complaints and notice of the news conference.

Dr. Jones also accused Dr. George, a Catonsville physician, of "having a different agenda" and preferring confrontation to collaboration to resolve the problems.

Dr. George denied that, saying the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decided to go public with the complaints because no demonstrable results have come from meetings on the same cases with school officials.

Dr. George cited two assaults at Stemmers Run Middle School and an abuse case at Johnnycake Middle School, but added that "there are many others across the school system." She said that the school superintendent should re-evaluate the entire "inclusion" process because of widespread complaints about insensitivity toward special-needs students by teachers not trained adequately to cope with them.

"Inclusion," educational jargon for educating disabled children alongside their nondisabled peers, provoked controversy after Superintendent Berger began work in July 1992 with a mandate to make changes. One of those changes was to satisfy a federal civil-rights directive giving Baltimore County until June 1995 to comply with a 1973 law that requires disabled children to be educated with nondisabled youngsters as much as possible.

Dr. Berger ordered the county's plan to be put in place last September. The plan -- and the speed of its implementation -- led to anguished and often angry confrontations among administrators, staff, lawyers, parents and students.

Now, midway through the school year, the reviews are mixed.

Dr. George said yesterday that given the opportunity to speak directly to Dr. Berger, she would ask him: "Are your teachers fitted for the job you've given them?"

Then, she said, "I would tell him, 'Look at teachers in terms of their ability to educate students. Period. Identify teachers who are totally insensitive to special-needs students and give them sensitivity training.' "

In a reply to Dr. George, mailed Friday, Dr. Berger said he was familiar with complaints about Stemmers Run and that meetings with parents had occurred.

However, because Dr. George's allegations "span numerous departments throughout the school system," he said he has appointed Jessie Douglas, his assistant for student relations, to lead the investigation, assisted by Evelyn Chatmon, assistant superintendent for equity and staff development, and Marjorie Rofel, director of special education.

Patricia Ferguson, county NAACP president, and the mothers of two of the complaining students stood with Dr. George as she spoke. However, "because lawyers are involved," Dr. George said, she would not identify the mothers or let them answer questions.

In one case, Dr. George alleged, a teacher threw a notebook at a boy and injured his nose. In another, she said, a teacher allegedly slammed a door on a boy's wrist and struck him in the ribs. Both incidents, she said, occurred in "unsettled classes" into which special-needs students had been placed.

The sexual-harassment case involved a 14-year-old girl who complained of repeated physical and verbal harassment by fellow students, Dr. George said. One boy was reprimanded in the principal's office, Dr. George said. When he returned to class, he told the teacher and classmates why he had been called to the office. The teacher then allegedly rebuked the girl for getting a classmate in trouble, and the entire class taunted her.

This so upset the girl that she has not been in school since November and seldom leaves her house, Dr. George said.

Dr. George and Dr. Jones tangled over Dr. Berger's response to the demand for an investigation. He mailed the letter Friday, shortly after her notice of the news conference arrived at school headquarters, according to Dr. Jones. In his reply, Dr. Berger acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations and wrote: "I assure you that each of these allegations will be investigated quickly and fully."

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