WASHINGTON -- After 16 years of legal wrangling, Baltimore school officials signed an agreement in federal court yesterday that sets improvement goals for the city's 17,000 special education students and could become a national model for resolving similar disputes.
With the parents of special education students and school board members looking on, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis heard how the two sides in the case had agreed to set targets to ensure that student achievement increases over the next three years.
The school system agreed to try to improve the graduation rate to 41.6 percent for special education students, to increase the number who take vocational classes and to integrate 58 percent into regular classrooms.
School systems, under federal law, are required to give these students certain services, but it is rare in these suits for broad districtwide goals to be set. The students have problems ranging from mild speech impediments to severe emotional and mental disabilities.
"The agreement is the first time they have set standards of achievement for disabled students," said Donna Wulkan, an attorney representing the city students in the suit.
The agreement was a watershed in a case known as Vaughn G. that began in 1984 when lawyers representing special education students filed a lawsuit against the school system saying that the students were not getting the proper services.
Garbis noted that 16 years later nearly all the original plaintiffs have graduated or dropped out.
The judge said that six months ago he ordered both sides to write an agreement that would set the goals the school system needed to meet to end the case. If they could not come to an agreement, he said, he would require them to meet in his courtroom to negotiate between 6: 30 a.m. and 9 a.m. every day for weeks.
In a highly unusual move, Garbis also asked U.S. Circuit Court Judge David S. Tatel to mediate between the two sides, giving them a May 1 deadline to complete the negotiations.
"It had only been tried once in this country's history and that was in the Microsoft case," Garbis said, noting with a smile that the personalities in the Baltimore case were equally as difficult as those in the suit that pits Bill Gates against the Justice Department.
Standing before the court, Tatel, who once represented the city's school system as a Baltimore attorney, said a panel of education experts had come up with a set of 14 goals. Tatel made the two sides negotiate until 2 a.m. one day "sustained by warm beer and cold pizza, which they are still complaining about."
The final agreement, he said, will require Garbis to decide in three years whether the school system has "substantially complied" with the goals.
Besides the goals, the system must be able to prove that 98 percent of all special education students had no disruption in the services they were supposed to receive in any one year.
If it has, the school system will "The agreement is the first time they have set standards of achievement for disabled students."
Donna Wulkan, attorney representing the city students in the suit
be free of a lawsuit that consumed enormous energy even as the schools struggled to reform classroom instruction for every child.
"It allows us to focus on the responsibility we have had all along," said the school board's president, J. Tyson Tildon, who witnessed the signing of the agreement along with former school board member Edward Brody.
School officials, as Tatel noted, have some concerns about whether the goals are too ambitious.
Tatel said that over the years, Garbis had always impressed upon school officials that he didn't want them to sign a document that they could not live up to. But Tatel said he believed that the school officials were committed and that they had finally consented to the goals because they must meet them substantially rather than absolutely.
The new agreement takes the place of hundreds of pages of documents that prescribe in minute detail what the school system must do for special education. Wulkan, who began representing the plaintiffs only recently, said it was "a micromanagement plan for a school system in total disarray."
The latest goals are possible, both sides have said, because new school leadership is more committed to solving the problems for special education students.
Parent not swayed
But for thousands of students who are in high school and have gone through the system since the lawsuit was filed, the agreement does little, one parent said.
"Because the system failed them, they are going to be out on the street," said Paulette Gettis, whose 17-year-old son James is a special education student.
"They are just not being held accountable again. They are giving them three, four, five more years," she said.