Contempt charges loom, U.S. judge warns Amprey

October 28, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey faces possible criminal and civil contempt charges for allegedly disobeying a federal judge's order requiring the school system to report formally on shortcomings in educating thousands of disabled youngsters.

In a strongly worded 15-page order yesterday, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis told Dr. Amprey to appear at a Tuesday morning hearing to determine whether to cite the schools chief.

"This court can no longer tolerate delays in giving the disabled children of Baltimore City their legal rights," Judge Garbis wrote.

In September, Dr. Amprey agreed that by Monday, the school system would give the court a complete quarterly report on the status of compliance with laws in the cases of more than 17,000 special education students. The city was to use a new computer tracking system to complete the report.

But Monday, Dr. Amprey sent the judge an incomplete report, accompanied by a letter saying the superintendent could not say whether it was "complete and accurate" because not all schools had provided necessary data. The schools chief said he would provide a complete and updated report within 30 days.

Last night, the school system released a statement saying that staff members at some of the city's 182 schools had not been trained in using the computer system, leading to the missed deadline. Dr. Amprey expects to give the judge a more detailed explanation Tuesday, said Nat Harrington, a school system spokesman.

Mr. Harrington noted that the long-standing special education violations predated the tenure of Dr. Amprey, now in his fourth year at the helm.

Judge Garbis, noting that a 1988 consent decree required the school district to prepare the reports on special education every three months, said the school system has had enough time to comply. The judge criticized Dr. Amprey's "apparent willful disregard of the obligation imposed upon him."

"Now, in October of 1994, after more than 10 years of litigation and more than six years under the consent decree, the school system still fails to comply with the requirements of federal law," Judge Garbis wrote. "The schoolchildren of Baltimore City are continuing to be denied rights granted under federal law."

In its statement, the school system responded, "Dr. Amprey takes the special education problem, the consent decree and the judge's action very seriously. He and his staff are making every effort to comply with all aspects . . . and believe this will happen very soon."

While acknowledging the shortcomings and pledging to correct them, the school system statement repeated Dr. Amprey's assertion that far too many children are classified special education and that many more should be in regular classrooms.

At the heart of the legal battle is the city's 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.

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 requirements, forcing some students to go without services and others to wait more than a year for services.

Leslie Margolis, an attorney with the Maryland Disability LaCenter, the Baltimore-based advocacy group that filed a lawsuit over the city's consistent failure to provide required services to thousands of special education students, welcomed news of the judge's order and called the quarterly reports critical to educating special education children.

Without accurate, complete quarterly reports, she said, "it has .. been impossible to know the extent of the noncompliance. That's the most basic tool."

In July, U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II ruled that a court-appointed team must have some say in key staffing decisions.

The ruling came in response to the latest volley in the decade-old lawsuit. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick joined the Disability Law Center in seeking the court order, which covers staffing decisions over the next year.

It requires that an oversight team consisting of Dr. Grasmick, Dr. Amprey and Mark Mlawer, representing the law center, review all proposed staffing decisions involving posts above the rank of teacher. If at least two members of the oversight team agree that a change would influence compliance with laws governing special education services, they would make recommendations on filling the slot.

The team, which meets weekly, is charged with reviewing compliance with the consent decree, recommending changes in policy and ensuring that they are carried out.

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