Judge warns school chief

Russo could be held in contempt for not following court order

Long-running case at issue

Computer that tracks special ed pupils does not work effectively

March 27, 2002|By Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie | Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A federal judge warned Baltimore's schools chief and a top deputy yesterday they could be held in contempt and jailed because the district has failed to maintain a computer system that tracks special education students.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo and Chief Technology Officer Joseph J. Kirkman to appear in court June 10 to determine whether they should be held in civil contempt for a "continuing failure" to comply with orders stemming from a long-running case over the delivery of special education services to about 15,000 students.

In one of three orders issued yesterday, Garbis said that Russo "has not required that her subordinates take all steps necessary to achieve compliance with Court Orders as expeditiously as possible" and that Kirkman also "has not devoted all reasonable efforts" to comply with the court's orders.

Russo was unavailable for comment last night because she was being honored as one of Maryland's Top 100 Women, an annual awards program sponsored by The Daily Record newspaper.

Abbey Hairston, an attorney for the school system who has worked on the special education case, also could not be reached for comment.

At issue is the operation of the Special Education Tracking System, known as SETS, which is used to track information on - and services provided to - children in special education. Ensuring that the computer system is functional is one of many requirements the court has imposed on the school system as a result of a lawsuit filed 18 years ago.

The lawsuit, named for a disabled student, Vaughn Garris, brought to light special education failures in the entire school system.

Garbis said that the schools have made "substantial improvements" to the computer system in the past three years and that the administration appears to be "working toward compliance with federal law and the conclusion of this burdensome litigation."

But Garbis also said that the schools have not kept SETS operating effectively and that the failure to do so will have a "negative impact" on the system's ability to meet its legal requirements this school year.

If the computer system is not fully functional two weeks before the start of the next school year, Garbis said, Russo and Kirkman should anticipate "the most serious sanctions" until the problems are fixed.

Garbis said that Russo and Kirkman "appear to have manifested less than appropriate respect for, and concern about, the substantive obligations established by Orders of this Court."

Civil contempt may be used by a judge to ensure that a party is complying with a court order. Sanctions for being found in civil contempt include fines and jail time. Garbis' order notes Russo and Kirkman "may be subject to imprisonment" if there's a finding of contempt.

Yesterday's order stems from the findings in a recent report of a court-appointed special master that criticized the school system for a botched attempt to improve SETS that essentially left it inoperable.

In the report, Amy Totenberg criticized top school officials for failing to adequately manage the provess and a contract with 4GL School Solutions Inc., the Towson firm hired to perform the upgrade and maintain the system.

Since the time the school district attempted the upgrade earlier this year, many of the social workers, psychologists and other workers who deal with special education students have been unable to enter any data into the system.

For instance, when a meeting is held to decide whether a student will receive a service such as counseling, speech pathology or extra help in reading, administrators must enter the outcome into the computer system.

Because of the breakdown, the school district can no longer tell the federal judge if it is meeting its legal obligations to provide students services.

Janice Johnson Hunter, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center, said last week that the problems that have developed in the computer system are unfortunate because they occur at a time when the district is trying to untangle itself from an 18-year lawsuit.

In the last few years, school officials and the plaintiffs have agreed to a set of goals the district must reach to get out of the lawsuit. But a key element in reaching those goals is ensuring, by tracking special education students, that it is serving those students.

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