Amprey in contempt of court

November 11, 1994

For a while this year, there seemed to be some hope that the city schools' 18,000 special education students might begin to get the kinds of services they need -- services that taxpayers are already paying for. Once again, however, the bureaucratic morass at North Avenue seems defeated by simple demands, or perhaps oblivious to their importance.

As a result, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis has declared Superintendent Walter G. Amprey in civil contempt of court, with the threat of making the order criminal. He has also imposed a $100 a day penalty on the school system until it complies with an order to provide a quarterly report on the status of special education students. Those actions drive home the fact that mere lip service to reform is not enough.

In a consent decree reached in 1988, the school system agreed to provide regular reports on the status of special education students. This information is essential in identifying and correcting the many problems in these programs -- and these kinds of records are also required by federal law. Yet, six years after the consent decree, and 10 years after the original lawsuit was filed, the schools are still offering excuses rather than working toward remedies.

The report in question was due Oct. 24. Dr. Amprey asked for no extension, but provided only an incomplete version, along with excuses about why a full report was not forthcoming. That simply won't wash, as Judge Garbis made clear.

The problem here is not necessarily a lack of money -- the city spent some $122 million on special education instruction in 1991-92. In terms of results -- the progress of students -- it has little to show for all those dollars. The deeper problem is more serious -- a lack of sufficient interest, training and commitment. Certainly Judge Garbis' actions drive home the fact that Dr. Amprey's leadership has not done much to change that.

Special education is hard work. But it does yield results when schools conscientiously try to respond to students as individuals with unique temperaments, abilities, learning styles and needs. Dr. Amprey's seeming indifference to the needs of special education students -- as demonstrated by his disregard for the school system's legal commitments -- suggests that the gap between rhetoric and reality remains distressingly wide.

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