'Going for the goods' instead of the grades

Special-ed program abuses persist in city

May 28, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Some ideas die hard in Baltimore's public schools.

In April of last year, embarrassed city school officials swore they would tame the so-called compensatory awards program -- a $3 million giveaway that handed out televisions, VCRs and other goods to disabled students who'd been neglected by the system.

Thirteen months later, they've claimed a few victories, but suffered some grand defeats. Now, some school officials say they're ready to ask a federal judge to eradicate the program -- which was ordered as a penalty for not providing special education services -- altogether.

"We are very concerned about the continued giving of goods as part of this program," said Gayle Amos, the system's special education director. "This has to stop."

The system has cut the compensatory awards program nearly in half -- from 3,214 awards in 1997-1998 to 1,906 in 1998-1999 -- by providing special education services more effectively and on time. New cases of wronged special education students continue to decline.

Also gone are the electronic gadgets and gift certificates that enabled some families to outfit their homes with everything from refrigerators to fax machines.

But among the many families still receiving compensatory awards, school officials say there remains a shopping-spree mentality that has them "going for the goods" rather than seeking appropriate educational remedies.

There is a 10-1 ratio of goods to services being selected in the program, and in the past 13 months, computers made up nearly two-thirds -- more than $600,000 worth -- of the awards handed out, while less than a third went to tutoring or summer camps.

School officials say obvious abuses of the program -- in which parents select merchandise that's either age-inappropriate or clearly noneducational -- persist despite efforts to stop them.

One 6-year-old's parents used her award to buy a high-powered computer with a scanner and digital camera that are good enough for professional-grade publishing, but the family sought only two hours of training for the equipment.

One boy's mother picked a plethora of merchandise for part of her child's award -- including 13 gallons of paint and five brushes -- and another chose toys and office supplies, including a crayon case, a three-hole punch, a rug and a football.

"This is just about stuff, not about education," said Theresa Sincavage, the awards program's director. "We can only do so much. We're pushing services as much as we can, and we have staff working closely with parents to select something that will really benefit their children. But in the end, so many of them want things more than services."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the 14-year-old federal special education lawsuit that led to the program -- Vaughn G. vs. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al -- insist that parents who abuse the program are the minority. They stress that it's unfair to judge any parent's selection without knowing their specific situation.

"Who are we to say what's appropriate? Shouldn't parents decide that?" said Winifred DePalma, one of the attorneys. "The program is not just about services. It's about providing something that will generally enrich the child's life, trying to make the child whole. It's also supposed to be a disincentive for the system, in that they need to realize that they should provide the services up front."

DePalma said if the system has a problem with an award that's selected it should take it to arbitration through the courts.

"If the school system didn't challenge the award in the first place, then how can they complain now?" DePalma asked.

Sincavage said most of the selections technically fit the program's parameters; they just aren't necessarily appropriate for the child for whom they were selected.

She said things in her office have gotten so bad that some parents are just about in a frenzy over the merchandise.

Parents have shown up to collect awards for other people's children. Some parents, after selecting consumables for their awards, have tried to return their selections after using them or tried to get more once their original selection is gone. One parent tried to collect an award for a child who had died.

Amos said the program today doesn't seem to fit its original intent.

"How are we compensating these children by giving them things? We aren't," Amos asserted. "It doesn't make much sense."

The awards program was created in the early 1990s in response to the system's repeated and flagrant failure to provide its nearly 18,000 disabled students with proper services. It was intended to be compensatory for the children and punitive for the district, in hopes of stopping the denial of services.

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