U.S control of special-ed threatened

March 16, 1995|By Jean Thompson and John Rivera | Jean Thompson and John Rivera,Sun Staff Writers

Baltimore has been put on notice that an advocacy group is threatening to ask a federal judge to take control of special-education programs from the city schools.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last night that such a move would be tantamount to a judicial takeover of all the schools because special-education students are intermingled with others throughout the system.

The potential request to put the schools in receivership is the latest action in an 11-year-old lawsuit filed against the school system alleging that it failed to comply with federal laws governing the education of children with disabilities.

"We have notified the school system that we believe this is the very next step," said Winifred DePalma, attorney for the plaintiffs, the Maryland Disability Law Center.

Ms. DePalma said the city has asked to discuss ways to resolve the matter without involving a takeover by U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis, who is hearing the special education case.

Tuesday's meeting with the judge will be in private. City officials say the judge has given them time to develop plans they hope will forestall the advocacy group.

"We think we are getting close to getting an agreement that we can present to the court and have the court adopt," said Mr. Schmoke, who is scheduled to discuss the city's response at a news conference today. "We have to do something dramatically different. We have got to take some steps to show the court that we are serious about complying with the law."

Yesterday, schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey confirmed that he told his principals about the situation and urged their cooperation in complying with a 1988 federal consent decree in the case.

The decree requires the city to assess the needs of disabled students and to provide services in a timely manner. The district also must prepare quarterly reports outlining the school system's compliance.

In an interview yesterday afternoon, Dr. Amprey said:

"All I'm trying to do is say we have to clean our own house or somebody is going to do it for us. We have to be real honest about things we need to do. Part of my talking with them is giving them the big picture. It's enough for us to have a wake-up call, and make it a positive motivator."

Patrick Crouse, principal of Woodbourne Day school in Northeast Baltimore, said Dr. Amprey discussed the consent decree during his regular quarterly meeting with the principals, but said no threats were made and there was "nothing punitive" about it.

"I saw it as a positive meeting," Mr. Crouse said. "I think it was a team effort."

In an interview late last night, Ms. DePalma identified three areas of concern to her organization: Many schools in a group monitored for compliance with the consent decree have not shown progress, and some have gotten worse, she said.

Despite school system assurances that its computers for managing district information also can track special-education cases, a consultant called in by the judge found that they could not.

Finally, she said a management team created last year to oversee efforts at compliance has not made sufficient progress.

Over the years, the slow pace of the city's compliance has frustrated Judge Garbis. In November, he found Dr. Amprey in civil contempt of court for not complying with an order requiring the school system to report formally on its shortcomings.

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