As officials squabble, city students suffer

Urban Chronicle

August 04, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

PATRICIA Carolina reaches into the oversized Timberland shoe box she uses to store the records of her youngest child, Jamall Davis, a 15-year-old special-education student in the Baltimore public schools.

She pulls out a copy of minutes of a May meeting of Jamall's Individualized Education Program team that fault the school system for failing to keep an accurate account of his attendance and say he is owed "30 hours of compensatory services to redress the loss of appropriate services."

Translation: Jamall was suspended for disciplinary reasons more than he should have been, and he needs tutoring to make up for his lost class time.

School officials wanted to schedule Jamall's makeup sessions over the summer. But Carolina told them he had a job at a summer camp and that she would rather he get the extra help come September, when he is back in class.

"I still want him to have his time," she says, "but I want it to be when it will be most helpful to him."

In federal court, Baltimore and Maryland education officials trade accusations, contained in hefty legal briefs, about who is at fault for the failure to provide services to Jamall Davis and who knows how many other of the city's 15,000 special-education students. In one legal filing in the 21-year-old case brought against the city and the state by the Maryland Disability Law Center, the state said one recent spot review of the records of special-education students found that only a third had received the support to which they were entitled.

The state contends that the city's special-education services are so mismanaged that the state needs to send in its own managers to oversee most aspects of the school system's operations. The city responds that such a step is tantamount to an unwarranted takeover, and say the principal problem with special-education services is inadequate state funding.

It's the sort of finger-pointing that has persisted for going on two decades now and that was supposed to become a thing of the past with the creation of a 1997 city-state school partnership - but obviously hasn't.

While officials debate who is responsible - a court hearing is scheduled Monday - parents like Carolina and students like Jamall are left not only to rise above their own circumstances but also the consequences of the system's lack of services.

In Jamall's case, his disability is behavioral, possibly stemming in large part from what his mother says was a case of lead poisoning when he was a toddler. His behavioral intervention plan says he suffers from "impulsivity/negative attention-seeking behavior," such as participating in food fights.

He represents one category of special-ed students, those for whom unwarranted dismissals have been a key part of the case. The theory is that before suspending a student more than 10 days a year, school officials should make every effort to figure out what the student needs to succeed.

Another category of special-ed students is those with physical problems who need help with speech therapy and transportation, services that have also been lacking.

Carolina says Jamall began receiving special-education services in elementary school, after failing the third grade.

He began eighth grade at Calverton Middle School last fall being owed 20 hours of tutoring in reading, writing and math to make up for group instruction he didn't receive the year before, according to Carolina and documents.

That wasn't the only problem the family faced.

"We were out of the house for two months for lead removal," says Carolina, a single mother and preschool aide who took her son to live with a relative in Towson while lead abatement was performed. "That was a change. He doesn't adjust well to change.

"In the process of that, I got laid off. That was another adjustment for him."

Carolina doesn't deny that her son was disruptive last year. She says she disciplined him at home when he acted up at school, but she criticizes the school system for not coming up with an approach other than "putting him out." Eight times, she says, he was suspended. "When he went back, he was behind the class," she says.

Still, Jamall managed to complete middle school and will enter Southwestern High School this month.

Carolina understands a high school diploma for her son is a long way off. Last year, 15.2 percent of the city's special-education students dropped out of high school. "I don't want that," Carolina says.

She reaches into her Timberland box and pulls out a copy of Jamall's Maryland School Assessment test scores. It shows Jamall lagging in math and reading behind his classmates, who lag behind the rest of the city's schoolchildren, who lag behind the state averages.

"I'm hoping that they help strengthen him in the areas he's weak," she says.

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