City agrees to reforms in education of disabled

April 05, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Admitting for the first time widespread failings in special education programs that serve more than 17,000 children, the Baltimore school district agreed yesterday to extensive reforms to ensure the city fulfills its obligation to educate handicapped students.

The agreement, approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II, represents a significant victory for the Maryland Disability Law Center, the plaintiff in a decade-old federal lawsuit over special education in city schools.

A key provision of an order signed by Judge Harvey creates a "management oversight team" -- including state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and a representative of the disability law center.

The team, which is to meet weekly, is charged with reviewing compliance with a 6-year-old consent decree, recommending changes in policy and ensuring they are carried out.

At the heart of the legal battle is the city's consistent failure to comply with federal law on the length of time handicapped students must wait for formal evaluations and services, including speech and physical therapy, psychological counseling and enrollment in special education classes.

Leslie Seid Margolis, an attorney for the law center, said the agreement heartened advocates for the disabled and marked a "significant departure" from the city's past refusal to acknowledge most of the special education programs' failings.

"We finally have the city saying, 'OK, we acknowledge these problems,' " she said. "Our hope is that in agreeing to this, the city is making a commitment to doing things differently. We hope that this reflects commitment on the part of city and state to make significant changes for kids."

The disabilities law center also has targeted the state, asking that the state superintendent be added as a co-defendant because of the state's failure to fulfill its responsibility to monitor special education in the city.

In yesterday's order, Dr. Grasmick formally agreed to become a co-defendant -- a move that puts the onus for compliance on the state as well as the city.

She had threatened in July to withhold more than $36 million in state funds and $7 million in federal funds for special education ,, because of the city's failure to make progress toward complying with regulations.

Federal law requires that the city assess a child's needs within 45 days of referral and place a child within 30 days of development of an "Individual Education Plan." The city has consistently failed to meet both of these requirements, the law center charges. That forced students to go without services or others to wait more than a year for services ranging from school placement to psychological and speech therapy.

Valerie V. Cloutier, chief attorney for the state Department of Education, said state officials plan to work closely with the city to ensure compliance with federal law and more clearly spell out responsibilities.

She said Dr. Grasmick much preferred working through the management team rather than creating a "hostile situation" based on the threat of withholding money.

Dr. Amprey, now in his third year at the helm, noted that special education lapses -- and most of the protracted legal battle -- predated his tenure.

"We recognize that we were out of compliance," he said, "and we recognize that it's important to address the needs of the special education youngsters."

Dr. Amprey added that the city wants to move forward to fill in gaps instead of continuing the costly legal maneuvering. "It's important for us to deal head-on with the problems in the school system," he said.

But he repeated his long-standing assertion that a maze of federal regulations results in far too many children landing in special education classes, particularly those classified "learning-disabled."

By agreeing to the order, the city averted a possible contempt-of-court ruling. The law center, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, had sought the ruling, charging the city failed to comply with provisions of the 1988 consent decree.

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