School transfer ban has family frustrated

Program suited to son painfully out of reach

April 29, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

When Jacqueline Paul looks at her 12-year-old son Jason, she sees a normal little boy who loves baseball and in-line skating.

But ever since Jason has been in school, Paul says, his teachers have seen him as a tangle of little mysteries to solve, a special education pupil wrought with unknowns.

"They're always trying to figure him out," Paul said. "There's never anyone with any experience who understands him."

So when the special education team at Oakland Mills Middle School told Paul that they had a program for children like Jason and had worked together for 15 years with every one of the many afflictions Jason suffers, Paul and her husband, Rob, nearly wept.

"We thought, `God's on our side,'" Paul said.

But then the Pauls hit a wall - the Howard County school system's moratorium on open enrollment.

The Pauls had hoped to send Jason to Oakland Mills, using the district's open-enrollment policy, which has allowed parents to move their children to any under-enrolled school in the county, as long as they provide transportation.

But the school board has instituted a strict moratorium on open enrollment, which means Jason is likely to attend the new Bonnie Branch Middle School in the fall.

The school board imposed the moratorium last year to give itself time to study the effects of the open-enrollment policy, which had come under fire when parents and community members discovered that many of the schools being left behind were older and had more minorities.

Critics called the practice elitist and, sometimes, racist - saying it contributed to inequities in the system.

Moratorium extended

Last month, the school system extended the ban for another year, this time making it clear that there were to be almost no exceptions to the moratorium.

The extension placated two distinct factions: those who found fault with open enrollment and feared the board was planning to continue it, and parents whose children were grandfathered into open-enrollment arrangements and who were afraid the board was poised to do away with the practice.

But the moratorium has left some families unable to make the choices they feel are best-suited for their children.

They say there often are circumstances where exceptions should be granted, such as pressing day care needs, for example, or siblings who are assigned to different schools because of the ban.

Jason's situation

And then there are the Pauls. In December, the couple began looking for a school that would best meet Jason's myriad needs.

Although he appears normal, Paul said, Jason is moderately retarded, has obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, attention-deficit disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, fine-motor dyspraxia (or poor muscle tone) and other neuromotor abnormalities.

"He can play baseball and Roller-blade, but he'll never play with watercolors or sand," Paul said.

On top of that, Jason is at the age where his peers have started teasing him.

"He's 12, but he plays mainly with 4- or 5-year olds because [older children] don't have the patience anymore," Paul said.

"Some of them are getting to the age where they are pretty rotten to him."

Options weighed

The Pauls visited private schools and researched the program that officials told Jacqueline Paul will be in place at Bonnie Branch when the school opens in the fall. That program would have Jason interacting more with other pupils in the building.

But the Pauls decided Jason should be in a more self-contained program, with an experienced staff - such as the Life Skills Program at Oakland Mills.

In February meetings with Jason's special education teachers and during tours of Oakland Mills' program, everyone seemed to be in agreement with the Pauls' assessment.

Transfer blocked

But then the bureaucracy intervened.

According to the Individualized Education Plan prepared for Jason, "what was previously thought to have been an option for Jason's middle school" is prevented by the countywide moratorium. That interpretation is "based on information" from a special education resource officer.

Jacqueline Paul was floored.

"They have to do something about open enrollment when it's this delicate," she said. "This is not about day care or a better football team."

Another family with a child with special needs faced a similar problem last year when attempting to move from one school to another.

Exceptions needed

The ban on "open enrollment may be justified in some cases, but they're using it across the board," said the child's mother, who asked not to be identified because she feared the child's pending placement in a new school would be jeopardized.

"They're saying no movement whatsoever. In some circumstances, the parents are justified. We needed to go someplace that had a program just for our child. And the home school didn't have it," the mother said.

Associate Superintendent for Planning and Support Services Maurice F. Kalin, who oversees open enrollment, said his office does not handle special education cases.

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