Mother takes complaints to federal level

Bel Air 12-year-old passed along despite scant skills

November 30, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Rebecca Roberts, who earlier this year was promoted from Youth's Benefit Elementary School to Bel Air Middle School, loves her cat, Whiskers, but she can't spell the cat's name and would not be able to read it in a sentence.

Despite being moved along in the Harford County public school system, 12-year-old Rebecca reads at a first-grade level. Her science and math skills are not much better. She struggles to do simple addition like 9 + 5 and 2 + 4.

Her failure to keep up with the other pupils has deprived Rebecca of many of the social aspects of school. She would sit in the back of the room and keep to herself, not talking with most of the other children.

"She was so withdrawn," said her mother, Peggy Roberts. "It was terrible."

Rebecca is dyslexic. She has difficulty comprehending visual information.

She can learn, says her mother, but learning doesn't come as easily for Rebecca as for most children. She needs special attention and Harford County has failed to provide it, Roberts contends in two complaints filed this year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Those were not the only complaints filed against the school system this year.

Another was filed in June by Leslie Rutherford of Jarrettsville, who has become an advocate for special education students since she filed a complaint against the school system 11 years ago when she felt her son was not getting a proper education. The June complaint, on the behalf of more than 1,600 speech and language special education students, said they were not obtaining a free and appropriate education. A settlement was reached Wednesday.

Rutherford said the settlement achieved two major accomplishments:

It requires the school system to report to parents each quarter on the number of entitled speech and language sessions scheduled and the number of sessions attended by students. "This will let the parents know when students are not getting the classes that they should be getting," Rutherford said.

It requires the school system to go to a private agency for a substitute speech and language teacher if it is unable to find one to fill in for an absent teacher. In the past, Rutherford said, too many students were missing classes because teachers were out without a replacement.

Peggy Roberts said she is awaiting the details of the settlement before taking further action on Rebecca's behalf.

Rebecca, who repeated kindergarten, "learned so little in seven years at Youth's Benefit it is as if she never went to school," Roberts said.

"I kept saying that something was wrong," she said. "But I was told by teachers and administrators that I was overreacting. That something would snap and Rebecca would be fine. I didn't know. They are the professionals. We put our faith in the school system, and it didn't work out."

In August, Roberts wrote to Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, asking that Rebecca be retained in fifth grade.

"She was not emotionally ready for middle school," Roberts said. "She had not mastered the skills needed to function at the sixth-grade level. "There are bigger kids there, and students move from class to class. That's a problem for Rebecca. She has problems with directions."

"I was afraid," said Rebecca. "Afraid of lockers. If I couldn't get it open, I would be in trouble."

Haas rejected the request.

"Please be aware that the decision to promote a student is administrative in nature and, in this case, I find the decision to be appropriate and valid based on the facts and circumstances related to the student," Haas wrote to Bel Air lawyer Robert L. Mauro, who was representing the Roberts family.

Roberts pulled Rebecca out of school and is teaching her at home because she feared her daughter would fall even further behind other pupils.

Special education students are students with disabilities. School policy is to educate them with students who are not disabled to the maximum extent possible.

Results of the Maryland School Assessments test released in August showed that 53.2 percent of Harford County's special education pupils did not achieve a basic or proficient reading level.

In the eighth grade, those failing to meet basic or proficient levels rose to 72.5 percent.

For math, the numbers were worse. By the eighth grade, 90.1 percent of the special education pupils taking the test failed to score a passing grade.

This situation is not unique to Harford County. The county's test results are close to those for special education students throughout Maryland, according the State Department of Education.

"That's the reason I pulled her out of school," said Roberts. "The situation would have gotten worse. They don't teach reading in middle school."

Ann-Marie Spakowski, who took over as the Harford school system's director of special education at the start of this school year, couldn't say much about Rebecca's situation.

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