Special ed litigants agree to truce Judge OKs pact between city schools and disabled students

December 05, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Stephen Henderson contributed to this article.

In a major break in a 14-year-old special education lawsuit, Baltimore school officials have agreed to a series of steps that will allow more disabled students to learn in regular classrooms -- from primary grades to vocational-technical school.

As a result, officials believe, the high percentage of children labeled as special education students will be reduced, and the ++ escalating costs of educating those children in separate, expensive and unequal classrooms will be cut.

An agreement signed yesterday by U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis comes after years of costly wrangling over special education and reduces the interference of special education attorneys in the day-to-day management of the schools.

"We understand you can't improve special education without changing the system," said Steve Ney, legal director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which filed suit against the city schools 14 years ago. "We are hoping to work together with the school board."

The Maryland Disability Law Center, representing special education students, agreed to back off a bit and give the year-old new school administration more flexibility in deciding how to fix the problems that have troubled the system.

In return, the city school board agreed to train 1,000 first-, second- and third-grade teachers how to adapt their teaching techniques to students who learn in different ways, whether they are disabled or not.

About 18 percent of the city's students are in special education -- one of the highest percentages in the nation -- and, according to a series in The Sun, are consuming about a third of the city's school budget each year, diverting scarce resources from the system's 88,000 other students.

School officials and experts believe that regular education is so poor in Baltimore that many children who haven't been taught well in the early years are shifted into special education programs by teachers frustrated with their inability to help them.

"These teachers mean well, and they are trying hard, but they need to be trained," Ney said. "That may reduce the number of children going into special education."

Karen Dabney-Lynch, the mother of a 15-year-old at Edmondson-Westside Skills Center, said her child would have benefited from better-trained teachers.

"The best part is the training for teachers," she said. "My daughter is failing; she has a speech-language disability and hasn't been getting the help for it. If teachers were better trained, my child would be better off."

The school board also agreed that at least 15 percent of next year's ninth-graders entering the city's three vocational-technical high schools would be special education students. This year, between 8 percent and 14 percent of the entering classes are made up of disabled children.

Vaughn Garris, a special education student who was chosen to lead the class-action suit against the city schools, had battled in the 1980s to get vocational training. Today, he sits in a Maryland prison.

To sweeten the deal, the school board voted unanimously to hire 17 new staff at a cost of $3 million to help administer programs for special education students.

The 50-page consent agreement says the school system must create a yearly plan to address special education problems for the next five years, and it details what is expected of the school system through the next year.

But it is far less onerous than a 1997 "long-range compliance plan" negotiated by Walter G. Amprey -- then a lame-duck school superintendent -- whose authority had been undermined when he was held in contempt by Garbis for mismanagement.

The 1997 plan contained hundreds of actions. Each had to be completed by a specific date. New school officials chafed under the details and sub-plans which filled two filing cabinets.

"It was an inflexible document, it couldn't be touched and had to be complied with 100 percent," said Abbey Hairston, attorney for the school system. School administrators saw the plan as a distraction from their efforts to reform the entire system and to attack the fundamental reasons why special education was a failure.

Negotiating a new deal has been an arduous process that took hundreds of hours and required breaking down some old animosities. Hairston estimates that the school system will spend about $150,000 to pay her fees and the fees of Maryland Disability Law Center's three attorneys since they began negotiations in July.

Garbis seemed to applaud the compromises. He said the new spirit of cooperation the two sides have exhibited "is a whiff of oxygen."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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