Effort seeks free legal aid for special education parents

November 15, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A former public defender is organizing Anne Arundel County lawyers to provide free aid to poor parents fighting to ensure good schooling for their learning-disabled children.

The Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC) has done such work in Baltimore and elsewhere since 1988. But since a referral service folded more than three years ago in Anne Arundel County, there has been no organized network of free legal help for the poor who wish to challenge the county school system's services for their learning-disabled children.

Annapolis lawyer Nancy M. Cohen said she decided to include special education in her fledgling private practice after 14 years of seeing school failures turn into criminal defendants.

That led her to take a seminar from MDLC, which in turn asked for her help setting up the service. She has enlisted another attorney and will begin rounding up more before the end of the year, she said.

"A lot of parents are unaware of their rights in this area," Cohen said. "The involvement of an attorney can make a huge difference. I am hoping that a lot of lawyers will sign up for this."

Of Anne Arundel's 74,275 students, about 10,500, or 14 percent, receive special education. Special education accounts for $50 million of the system's $454 million budget.

Disputes between parents and a school system can come over issues as complex as what constitutes appropriate classes to something as simple as arranging school bus service for a disabled child.

While most disputes are resolved at the school level, dissatisfied parents requested 18 hearings and 29 mediations with an administrative law judge during the last school year. Out of that, nine hearings took place, according to school statistics.

Lawyer Daniel V. Schmitt co- ordinates MDLC's special education efforts in Baltimore County, parceling out complaints among as many as 30 lawyers. Some years, he said, MDLC refers only 10 cases to him; other years, four times that many.

MDLC, a nonprofit center that serves as an advocate for the poor and disabled statewide, has been locked in a 14-year federal court battle with Baltimore schools over special education.

"From our perspective, if there is someone we can refer cases to, that is great, because we are totally overwhelmed in this area," said Leslie Seid Margolis, an MDLC staff attorney.

WIDOW WARNING "That is definitely a needed area -- not just for poor families; we need it for other parents too," said Carolyn Roeding, a PTA activist who volunteers as an advocate for Anne Arundel parents of special education students.

She said the quality of services at the schools is uneven. Some offer comprehensive help, and some do not. She said she has seen children with an attention deficit disorder, who were to get a plan for modifying behavior, get anything from a step-by-step management plan to a checklist of goals.

But Roeding doubted that any of the dozen families she is trying to help would qualify for free legal help. MDLC operates under income guidelines that restrict its assistance to families earning half of the median income. A family of four this year has to have an income of $30,930 or below to qualify.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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