Columbia Council votes to save program for disabled

Angry parents testify against threatened closing

November 15, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association has backtracked on a plan to close an after-school program for the disabled two months into the school year after parents complained of receiving only two weeks' notice.

After a string of emotional testimony from parents, the Columbia Council has voted to continue the program at Cedar Lane School in Harper's Choice through June. In the interim, CA will look for ways to offer the program, which serves 10 children, some of whom are severely disabled, on a long-term basis.

"You don't go into a lot of legalese and a lot of policy this-and-that," said Earl Jones, the council representative from Oakland Mills, who proposed the temporary extension. "You attempt to do what you can to help them, and that's what this should be all that."

In a letter dated Oct. 20, CA's assistant director of community services, Michelle A. Miller, informed parents that the last day of the program would be Nov. 5. That deadline was extended to Dec. 6.

"Our decision is based upon the determination that a more therapeutic-based program will best serve the needs of your children," she wrote. "We are presently unable to provide these necessary services for your children in the most cost-effective manner. We apologize for any inconvenience this decision may cause, and in turn, will waive the November monthly fee."

Miller said the decision had been reached "in consultation" with the school principal, Nicholas P. Girardi. At issue was the hiring of an on-site registered nurse to administer medication, if the need arose, because program staff were not qualified to do so.

While Girardi did raise that concern with CA officials, he said he never suggested closing the program -- or knew that CA was considering that as an option.

"It was news to everybody," he said.

Parents later met with the head of CA's community services division, Maggie Brown, who could not be reached to comment, to assure her the nurse was unnecessary. The parents of the child in question, Girardi said, agreed to withdraw his medication because he had not had a seizure in years.

"To a person, all the parents are in agreement about the nurse being an excess," said Pat Sullivan, whose son Brian attends the after-school program.

Nevertheless, CA recently began paying for a nurse to be present between 2: 30 p.m. and 6 p.m. every school day. It is unclear how much that costs, and what liability CA would have if it operated the program without one, as it did for 17 years.

Cedar Lane is one of 20 before-and after-school care programs CA runs in the Columbia area, and apparently the only one CA had planned to close. The overall program is one of only five CA facilities and programs that are profitable. In the current fiscal year, which began May 1, it is expected to make $20,000.

During the council meeting Thursday night, several parents expressed worry, anger and "disenchantment" with CA over its handling of the issue.

"[The program] is vital to the families it serves," said Gena Luoma, a teacher at Cedar Lane whose daughter Mia, 13, has attended for two years. "My recent experience with CA has been an eye opener, to say the least. I understand now that CA is all about business."

Irene Parham said her son Blair, 19, is 6 feet tall, weighs more than 200 pounds and has the mental capacity of a child between 6 months and 2 years old.

"Who is going to take care of him?" Parham asked. "If you take the program away, he can go home and sit or walk through the house. There is nothing in this county for our children."

The recreation and parks department operates a therapeutic program, but parents of children at Cedar Lane say it is not tailored for those with more severe physical or mental disabilities.

The council, CA's governing body, voted on the issue Thursday night in executive session, which was closed to the public. Members went into executive session because the subject was not scheduled for debate on the regular council agenda.

"I think it's an extremely good start," Joseph Merke, the council chairman, said of the vote to extend the program.

Still, its long-term future remains unclear.

"I would like to see those kids being taken care of," Merke said. "Now, whether we do it, or somebody else does it, or a combination, I don't know."

Said Sullivan: "We are perched and ready for Round 2."

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