Stanley S. Herr, 56, law professor, advocate for the mentally disabled

September 25, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Stanley S. Herr, a University of Maryland law professor who helped establish the federal law requiring appropriate public education for disabled children, died yesterday of adrenal cancer at his residence in Homeland. He was 56.

For nearly two decades he taught civil rights, human rights and clinical legal education. He helped write the 1989 Maryland law that prohibits the execution of criminals identified as mentally retarded.

He also submitted a brief that was cited by the Supreme Court in abolishing the death penalty for the mentally retarded. In the early 1970s, he played a role in cases that freed mental patients from long-term hospitalization in warehouselike institutions.

"Stan was a very popular and accessible teacher. Students flocked to his classes because they felt Stan's passion and his genuine personal interest in their careers and lives," said Douglas L. Colbert, a Mount Washington resident and a fellow Maryland faculty member.

Mr. Herr's career began in 1970 as a children's rights and public-interest lawyer. Legal colleagues said that within two years he was instrumental in changing the landscape of disability rights law, with the 1972 landmark case of Mills v. District of Columbia that established "the constitutional right to a free and appropriate public education for children with all types and severities of disabilities."

In the Mills case, Mr. Herr discovered a child named Gregory who was excluded from school for months because he threw spitballs at other students. He was incorrectly diagnosed with mental retardation and pervasive multiple handicaps affecting basic life skills and learning.

Congress and the Supreme Court cited Mills as providing the legal and political roadmap for the 1975 National Education for all Handicapped Children Act that required special education for every child with disabilities.

"As a lawyer and human being, Stan Herr devoted his life to the pursuit of justice, especially for persons with disabilities," said R. Sargent Shriver, Peace Corps founder and former vice presidential candidate who was a longtime friend.

Mr. Herr was an authority on retardation and mental illness who wrote extensively on the subject -- five books and 100 articles on disability rights, elder rights, children's rights and human rights topics. He joined the Maryland faculty as a full professor in 1983.

Mr. Herr also played a significant role in the 1972 Willowbrook cases -- named for a New York mental institution -- which led to the closing of warehouse-type institutions and the expansion of community-based services for people with mental disabilities. A second court decision recognized the constitutional right to mental-health treatment and housing.

"Stan was an extraordinarily creative and gifted, nationally and internationally recognized scholar and activist. He continually raised the bar of productivity for our faculty," said UM Law School Dean Karen Rothenberg.

Mr. Herr was also an advocate for giving Baltimore's public school students effective instruction in basic reading skills:

"If you don't get proper reading instruction in the early grades, you get low self-esteem and you get emotional problems and you get an aversion to going to school and it's all downhill from there," he told The Sun in a 1998 interview.

Born in Newark, N.J., he was a 1967 graduate of Yale College, where he sang in the Russian Chorus and Glee Club. He took a law degree from Yale Law School in 1970 and earned a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University in England in 1979.

He was a Kennedy Public Policy Fellow at the White House from 1993 to 1995, and had earlier been a Rockefeller Fellow for Human Rights at Columbia University and a Kennedy Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford University. He also taught at the Harvard and Catholic University law schools.

Mr. Herr often began his day by jogging through Robert E. Lee Park and the paths around Lake Roland. A runner since his teen years, he completed several Boston and New York marathons.

He is survived by his wife of 22 years, the former Raquel Schuster, and three school-age children, son David Louis Herr, and twin daughters Deborah Ann and Ilana Deborah Herr; and a sister, Judith N. Herr of Bethesda.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.

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