Judge insists pact set specifics School system told to give objectives in special education suit

Both parties rebuked

October 10, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

In a diatribe from the bench, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said yesterday that he would only approve a settlement in a lawsuit over special education in Baltimore if there were clear objectives and consequences for school system failures.

"This is not going to be a rubber stamp," he said. "I've got to see something in this order that is solid."

Garbis' lecture came as school officials and attorneys representing special education students presented him with a tentative agreement to resolve the latest conflict in a 14-year-old legal battle over the city's failure to educate its children with disabilities.

Special education students -- who range from those with physical handicaps to those with mild learning disabilities -- represent nearly 18 percent of Baltimore's public school children.

Garbis, who vented frustration at the years the lawsuit has continued without resolution, reprimanded both sides. He called their conduct in the case at various times "devious," "outrageous" and "ugly."

"This is not the first time and may not be the last time we are in this court on the brink of holding the school system in

contempt of court," he said.

School officials and attorneys representing the students came to an agreement hours before they were to have argued the case before Garbis in a Baltimore courtroom.

Attorneys for the Maryland Disability Law Clinic, representing the students, have accused the schools of failing to accomplish actions outlined in a five-year plan to improve special education. They sought to have the school system held in contempt of court and to have the judge impose millions of dollars in fines.

School officials say the five-year plan, agreed to by former Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, was too complicated to carry out. They also objected to what they said was an attempt by law clinic attorneys to interfere in the workings of the school system.

Details to work out

Grace Lopes, a special master for the court who helped negotiate the proposed settlement, said the two sides had many details to work out before they could come to Garbis with a written settlement in three weeks.

The agreement calls for the acceptance of a new plan -- written by school officials -- for improving special education. Attorneys representing children with disabilities would add several items.

Rather than setting hundreds of deadlines, the sides would have to agree on specific ways to measure the progress the system makes.

School officials and the lawyers for the children would also have to work out a means of enforcing the plan other than fining the school system for failing to meet deadlines. For instance, the two sides said the school system might have to hold a summer session for children who don't get the services they need or for teachers who do not get the further training they need to teach special education children.

And, unlike before, incentives would be provided for the school system to comply with the plan.

Quarterly meetings

Law clinic attorneys have agreed to give up any claim to be involved in management decisions, such as the hiring of principals and high-level administrators or the ratification of teacher contracts. The lawyers would have the right to meet quarterly with Robert Booker, chief executive officer for the schools, and twice monthly with Gayle Amos, director of special education. And if they had disagreements, they could take them to the court.

Garbis said he recognizes the role the new school board and Booker have played in trying to improve the school system. But he warned that they must not agree to a plan they cannot complete. If school officials feel pressured to do so, he said, they should come to him.

He said he would hold school officials accountable. "I have to feel the people in charge are really dedicated to this," Garbis said.

The judge and Booker agreed to meet after the hearing yesterday at the request of Garbis, who said he didn't want attorneys present because their judgment had been "distorted by the lens of anger."

Fire the lawyers

Garbis told the school board and the directors of the law clinic that they should fire all of the lawyers in the case if they do not begin to get along better.

It apparently was Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, not Garbis, who had gotten the two sides to agree to a settlement.

Kaplan and Garbis, who are friends, had negotiated the settlement of two suits involving city schools two years ago that were intended to reform the entire school system, including special education.

Several people involved in the settlement said Kaplan asked all sides to his office a week ago. In that meeting, he told attorneys for the children that they must recognize that they were not helping their clients.

"Sometimes it is hard for people who have been fighting something for so long to realize that the battle is over," one person close to the negotiations said.

Elliott Andalman, an attorney who assisted the law clinic attorneys, said after the court session yesterday that he believes the looming deadline of a court hearing and hard work on the part of Lopes had brought the sides together.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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