City schools fail to provide ordered special-ed makeup

March 15, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore public school system has made little progress in providing 90,000 hours of makeup services that special education students were to receive last school year, and its record this year could be even worse, state officials said yesterday.

The state also released a report showing that 80 of 316 city high school seniors in special education received diplomas last spring without meeting graduation requirements.

As a result of last year's breakdown in providing speech therapy, counseling and other services to Baltimore students with disabilities, federal District Judge Marvin J. Garbis authorized the state to send nine managers to oversee all city school system departments affecting special education. The city school system is appealing that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Garbis, who oversees a 22-year-old special education lawsuit filed by students against the city school system and the state, warned in December that Baltimore school officials could face criminal or civil contempt charges if they fail to provide makeup services. Contempt penalties can include jail time.

In an interview yesterday, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the state managers do not have the authority to hire and contract with service providers, positions the system often outsources. She said the managers' task is to help Baltimore school officials do a better job of running the system, not to run it for them. She said she is considering whether to ask Garbis for more authority to compel the city school system to serve its special education students.

"I'm just so horrified," Grasmick said. "We're all horrified about the fact that the children are not getting services."

Grasmick released the findings two weeks before she is expected to ask the state school board, in a separate matter, to authorize further state intervention in the Baltimore schools as a result of their perpetually low test scores. Grasmick declined to comment yesterday on the potential nature of the intervention.

Last school year, about 9,000 special education students missed at least 90,000 hours of services, said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education. As of Monday, 3,974 of the 90,000 hours had been made up, a record Baglin called "pathetic."

Douglass Austin, the city school system's chief of staff, said the state's findings "should be a surprise to no one." He said the school system has been telling the state and the court all along that it does not have enough speech-language pathologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists.

Austin said the state is setting the Baltimore system up for failure, calling demands that makeup services be provided during the school day "a recipe for disaster." The city school system proposed contracting with a company that would have provided the services on weekends and other times when children aren't in school, but the plan fell apart amid concerns by the court's special master, the state and lawyers for special education students.

"We didn't have the capacity to provide the services last year," Austin said. "We don't have the capacity to provide them now. So what do you expect? We're doing as much as we can. ... Forcing those 90,000 hours into this school year is a mistake. It's not going to work, and it isn't working."

Baglin said the court has given the city school system the flexibility to provide makeup services at times of parents' choosing. But she said services such as speech therapy are most effective when delivered during school. She said the state had lined up clinicians to serve about 800 students in their classrooms but the city school system opposed the move in court. The state withdrew its proposal to avoid expensive litigation, she said.

Austin denied state officials' allegations that the city school system has failed to contact service providers whom they recommended. He challenged the state to provide the names of any recommended companies the system has not contacted.

Baglin said the companies are uncomfortable with having their identities disclosed publicly because they still want to do business with the city school system. But she said a member of her staff surveyed six recommended companies yesterday and found that three had never heard from the system.

Meanwhile, state officials released an audit of a sample of special education students' records from the first four months of this school year. They found that 172 of 314 students whose files were reviewed, or 55 percent, did not receive all of the services to which they were legally entitled. Auditors found service deficits at 47 of the 54 schools where they reviewed files.

If problems continue at that rate for the rest of the school year, Baglin said, this year's shortfall will exceed last year's.

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