Couple seeks special education order for son Parents say public schools cannot meet his educational needs

August 13, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

An Ellicott City couple has asked a federal judge to force Howard County schools to send their 7-year-old son to a Baltimore school for children with special needs.

The request for an injunction, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, is part of a lawsuit filed this spring by Kathy and Dr. Roger Gordon against the Howard County Board of Education on behalf of their youngest son, Travis, who suffers from autism and a severe form of muscular dystrophy.

The Gordons say the school system has insisted on keeping Travis in a county school and has refused to place him at the Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore, which serves children with physical and mental disabilities.

The Gordons filed the lawsuit after an administrative law judge ruled in February that Travis' educational needs could be met in a mainstream classroom setting at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City. Because Kennedy Krieger does not take private placements, Travis would require a referral from the school system to attend.

Travis' parents say they are outraged that their child, who they say is not expected to live past age 20, was denied placement at the school. Kathy Gordon said the combination of Travis' physical and emotional disabilities make a traditional classroom environment unsuitable for him.

"I believe in inclusion," she said. "If my son had just [muscular dystrophy], I would definitely want him included. For general education, Howard County is a fine system. I have a feeling Howard County doesn't want to waste money on a dying child."

School officials said they could not discuss the specifics of Travis' situation or the lawsuit, which also seeks $500,000 in damages.

Sandra Marx, director of the Special Education Department of the Howard County school system, said the decision to place a child in a private program is based on whether the public schools can provide an appropriate program for the child.

Marx said children have been referred to Kennedy Krieger and other similar private programs, which the school system then pays for. Parents who disagree with the school system's recommendation can try to resolve the issue through mediation and an administrative hearing with a judge. The next step would be to take the matter to court.

"We may disagree with the parent who says, 'No, I prefer my child be educated elsewhere,' " Marx said. "We try to really meet the mind of the parent and work with the parent. We have a lot of parents who would love for the school system to pay for a private education for their child."

Autism, which interferes with the normal development of the brain, causes sufferers to have difficulties with communication and social interaction. But unlike other disabilities, autism is not a specific disease or genetic disorder, and researchers do not know what causes it.

In addition to autism, Travis has Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, a progressive form of the disease that worsens with age, limiting mobility and increasing the risk of debilitating consequences from an injury such as a broken bone. The Gordons recently learned that Travis also has an enlarged heart, Kathy Gordon said.

She said that after three years in the Howard County school system, Travis could not read or write. She said educational advocates and doctors that worked with Travis said, among other things, that he needs to be in a classroom with 10 or fewer students, requires a student-teacher ratio of 3-to-1 and an on-staff doctor to monitor his medication.

None of these specifications were met in Howard County, she said. The Gordons eventually opted to teach Travis at home before hiring a private educator. Finally, the Gordons were able to enroll Travis in a summer program at Kennedy Krieger, where they hope he can remain.

"It was like stepping into a community that embraced us," Kathy Gordon said.

With the intensive instruction he has received at Kennedy Krieger, she said, Travis has been trained to use the bathroom, learned how to write and is in the beginning stages of reading. Instead of standing at the refrigerator and yelling, Travis can now ask for a Sprite, she said.

"He's doing things I never thought I'd see my son do," she said. "Yesterday, he went canoeing and go-cart riding. This is a very exciting time for us."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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