Accessibility for disabled at schools probed by U.S.

May 15, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Federal officials are investigating a complaint that 18 Baltimore County schools, including two special education centers, are not accessible to people in wheelchairs and others with limited mobility.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in Philadelphia, alleges that schools do not have the proper ramps, elevators and other facilities to allow disabled youngsters to move about as freely as their peers who are not disabled.

School officials do not deny that many of the system's 150 schools, particularly the older ones, do not meet the codes for accommodating disabled students. In fact, they have conceded that five of the schools named in the complaint are "hopelessly inaccessible," said Thomas Regan, the school system's equity coordinator, who handles discrimination issues.

Because of the age of the five schools and the way they were built, it would be impossible to bring them up to federal standards for the disabled, Mr. Regan said.

After an initial investigation, federal officials agreed and removed these five schools from the complaint: Woodlawn High and Colgate, Randallstown, Rodgers Forge and Owings Mills elementaries.

Education department investigators spent four or five days in the county this month, videotaping entrances, restrooms, cafeterias, shops and even the height of the fire alarms in the remaining 13 buildings.

"They will go back and view them [the videotapes] with their lawyer," and rule on the complaint within 60 days, Mr. Regan said.

The 13 are: Joppa View, Hillcrest, Pinewood and Winfield elementaries; Holabird and Pine Grove middle schools; Randallstown, Owings Mills, Western Technical, Eastern Technical and Carver high schools; and White Oak and Battle Monument special schools for disabled youngsters.

Mr. Regan said the school system believes the buildings are accessible, though they may not meet all federal requirements.

"We have to show evidence that we are moving forward in an orderly fashion toward compliance. We know exactly what to do. The bottom line is dollars."

He told the school board this week that "I'm not very hopeful that we are going to be very successful" in satisfying the complaint.

To deal with situations where a school is not accessible, the school system adopted a policy that allows "a cluster concept" to be used to accommodate disabled students.

Under the plan, all county schools are grouped and, within each cluster, is a school "identified as the accessible facility at which parking, a barrier-free entrance, lavatory facilities and appropriate interior modifications . . . ensure interior access."

"Almost none [of the schools in the complaint] was a cluster school," said Mr. Regan.

Bringing even cluster schools into compliance with federal regulations could cost about $3 million, or 10 times the annual budget for such improvements, he said.

"As funds permit, we make improvements," he said.

Because of privacy laws, school officials do not know who lodged the complaint. However, Mr. Regan said they assume the complainants are parents who are unhappy with the county's fast pace of inclusion, which involves transfer of seriously disabled students from special centers into neighborhood schools this fall.

Inclusion in the county got its push from another civil rights complaint, brought by parents unhappy with how slowly the county was moving children with disabilities into regular classrooms.

That complaint resulted in a federal order early last year to move severely disabled youngsters out of the special schools as quickly as possible. The school system has until December 1995 to comply with that order, though many of those youngsters, classified as Level 5, already are in neighborhood schools.

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