Effort to assist pupils assailed

Balto. Co. transition center isolates needy, critics say

Scheduled to open in fall

Plan's foes, Hairston meet to resolve differences

July 18, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

A group of child and disability rights advocates says a new Baltimore County program to help prepare students in foster care and group homes to enter public schools is illegal because it segregates them unnecessarily.

The advocates, led by the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center and supported by organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, asked Superintendent Joe A. Hairston in a letter this month to halt plans to open the "transition center."

The center, apparently the first of its kind in Maryland, will serve children entering grades K-12 without necessary paperwork and in need of social services - primarily those in group homes and foster care and the homeless. Children will stay at the center for one to three weeks, getting set up to receive the social services they need and attending classes on such topics as self-esteem building and study skills, while the district gathers records on their backgrounds.

Scheduled to open this fall, the center will enroll up to 80 children at a time. The school system has tentatively decided to locate it in a strip mall on Whitehead Road in Woodlawn.

In their letter, the advocates applauded the county for providing an additional $1.3 million in the coming school year to serve a vulnerable population, but they urged the county to use that money instead to serve the children in their neighborhood schools. They say most children moving into foster care, group homes or homelessness are entitled under federal law to attend school in their new neighborhoods or to remain in the schools they were attending before their lives were disrupted.

The letter was signed by attorneys at the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, Maryland Disability Law Center, Advocates for Children and Youth, and Maryland CASA Association, in addition to attorneys at the Public Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, and by a University of Maryland law professor.

Hairston and school board President James R. Sasiadek said the system is working with the advocates to resolve their concerns. It has agreed not to place children receiving special-education services in the center, alleviating advocates' concerns about the violation of laws requiring school districts to serve children with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment."

Public Justice Center attorney Wendy Hess, whose name appears first in the letter, declined to comment on the advocates' talks with the school system. She said, "We certainly don't want to go to court if it can be avoided."

"If they're able to meet the needs of children in a way that doesn't violate their rights at the same time, we think that's ideal," she said.

Other advocates who signed the letter deferred to Hess to comment.

Key disagreement

The fundamental disagreement is over where the children should be served. Hairston said he would be happy to serve children at their home schools from the start, as the advocates want, but such a model is far more expensive, and the school system has to rely on the county government for funding.

According to a 2001 study, Baltimore County housed 1,100 of the state's 1,700 children who were in group homes because of abuse, neglect or juvenile delinquency.

The school system has long been grappling with how to meet the needs of such children, many of whom have emotional problems. Often arriving without records from their previous schools, they cause their new principals and teachers to scramble, Hairston said. The children are sometimes unable to start school until bureaucratic issues are sorted out, and the schools do not offer all the social services they need.

The superintendent said the center, which will have a principal and teachers, will centralize all the services available to the children, with social workers, counselors, representatives from the health department and others on hand. Service providers will then continue helping children after they begin attending regular schools.

"It is not a holding pen. It is not a prison. It is not designed to isolate children," Hairston said. "It does provide an opportunity for us to mobilize what available resources we have."

He said the center might also serve children who live with their families but who have no records. He said children in group homes and foster care who have all necessary records may bypass the center.

`Unconstitutional'

But the advocates' letter says the center is "unconstitutional," in part because it could require attendance by children who don't need the services it provides.

The letter says the transition center would cause children - disproportionately poor and African-American - to "lose their friends, teachers and ordinary daily experiences that give them continuity and a sense of stability." It mentions long bus rides and a shortened academic school day as ways in which the children's rights would be violated, saying the students would be stigmatized and forced to adjust to two new school environments instead of one.

"However well-intentioned the reasons behind its creation," the letter says, "the facility would be a misguided effort that would ultimately harm more than it would help."

On the other side of the debate are community groups such as the Liberty-Randallstown Coalition and the school district's Minority Achievement Advisory Group, which welcome the center as a source of relief for schools and attention for children who too often get lost in the system.

"I consider it criminal to place the burden on these schools without backup support," said Ella White Campbell, chair of the minority achievement group, which advises the school board and lobbied for the center. "If there were sufficient resources in every school, they could handle it. But we know for a fact that does not exist."

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