Didn't learn how to read? Let us buy you a TV set

Schools: When special-ed students missed out in the classroom, the city made amends with electronic goodies.

September 22, 1998|By Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF fTC

One Baltimore teen-ager sailed the Caribbean aboard a Carnival cruise ship. Another filled her Armistead Gardens home with the latest in electronics from Circuit City, including a computer with printer and scanner, a television, a VCR, and a fax machine. Yet another family got three home computers, one for each child.

Lucky winners in a game-show giveaway?

No. Baltimore special education students.

Under orders from a federal court, the Baltimore school system gave away more than $2 million in merchandise, trips, summer camp fees, gift certificates and tuition last year. The goodies were, in effect, consolation prizes for lost education - awards meant to compensate thousands of special education children who hadn't received the instruction or services they were supposed to get.

The giveaway, perhaps the most eye-catching misstep in a 10-year struggle to improve special education, arose from the frustrations and futility of the marathon federal court case, Vaughn G. vs. The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, et. al.

As legal arguments collapsed into bickering, the notion that missed education could be replaced with toys and TVs took on a logic - and a life - of its own.

"What good are goods? ... There's no lasting value in that. I'm embarrassed by it," says Gayle Amos, the new special education administrator charged with straightening out the mess.

No more free TVs

Under Amos, the school system has stopped giving away TVs and VCRs, though computers are still offered to students. New administrators have instituted stricter controls, but they admit that they are just beginning to realize the extent of the damage.

"The program," says a circumspect Amos, "was very badly managed."

For about a year, from March 1997 until last April, the awards program was run by former court monitor Felicity Lavelle, who was paid more than even the schools' chief executive, and the school's Office of Compensatory Awards - with the full approval of the federal court.

The program worked like this:

Hours of missed lessons or therapy were converted to points. Points, worth up to $25 each, could be cashed in like trading stamps to buy merchandise listed in a catalog designed by Lavelle. The longer a child had waited for special education testing, the more lessons or therapy he had missed, the more things his parents could buy.

Some parents went after the loot like participants in a 60-second shopping contest, loading up on home appliances, cell phones and pagers. Others begged to use the credits to pay for job training or private schooling, only to be pushed toward the catalog, which offered trips to Seattle and New Orleans and "toys and games for sensory stimulation."

"The thrust of it was, 'You all have so many kids with missed services that you're going to have to give them [something] to make it up, and this is the only remedy,'" says Baltimore schools lawyer Abbey G. Hairston, who contends that the school system and the children's lawyers are equally to blame. "I just think the whole thing stinks, and I'm very unhappy."

Basketball for therapy

Between March 1, 1997, and April 1 of this year, 2,443 students received compensatory awards, including 100 students who collected $5,000 to $10,000 worth. Forty-five youngsters received awards worth more than $10,000, and three had tallies that topped $30,000, according to school records.

Of the about $2 million in awards given during Lavelle's tenure, only 10 percent was used for tutoring or therapy.

But even then, not all lessons or therapy took place in schools.

Thousands of dollars went for midnight basketball camps - termed therapy for emotionally disturbed youths.

The 18-year-old who took the Carnival cruise did so under the guise of paying for dance lessons - an acceptable option, according to the catalog. And he did dance aboard ship in costumes purchased by the Baltimore school system.

Most of the students who had large compensatory awards received computers with accessories and extended warranties. But most weren't taught how to use them.

Between March 1997 and April of this year, the school system spent $838,447 for 395 computers, at retail prices ranging from $1,919 Apples to $2,898 Sonys.

Former Patterson High School student George H. Justice Jr. got a $2,500 gift certificate to purchase "computer supplies" - a year and two months after he was jailed in an August 1996 slaying. With Justice in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, his mother declined to comment but said that the award "did go to his benefit."

One parent exchanged the computer given to her child for a stove and a refrigerator.

Yet another family who got three $2,500 NEC computers - one for each child - didn't want any of them.

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