Special ed lawsuit was about more than paperwork

March 18, 2010

In "Next steps for special ed" (March 14) Kalman Hettleman makes several points with which we agree. However, it is important to correct one statement that simply is not true. Mr. Hettleman states that the Vaughn G lawsuit "focused almost exclusively on paperwork compliance with complex procedural safeguards in federal law." In fact, it was Baltimore City Public Schools' own bureaucracy that chose to implement the consent decrees and orders in inefficient ways that created unnecessary paperwork.

The lawsuit was initiated to ensure timely services to students. If students do not receive services or do not receive services on time, it is not possible to address other issues regarding their services. Because BCPS began to provide timelier services with fewer interruptions, the focus of the lawsuit in recent years has turned to other legal requirements substantively related to the services students receive. Two examples should suffice.

First, the law requires students with disabilities to be educated to the extent possible with non-disabled peers in general education classrooms. To make this happen successfully, the law requires schools to provide supports and accommodations to these students. This is not a procedural requirement. It is an essential and core substantive requirement of the law driven by educational best practices. After many years, BCPS has been able to place a satisfactory percentage of students into general education classes, but it still needs to improve the provision of accommodations and supports so these students can make educational progress. Therefore, the new agreement includes a provision requiring BCPS to initiate a project for intensive training and technical assistance for staff regarding these kinds of supports for students with disabilities.

Second, the new agreement includes a continuation of a project previously negotiated by the parties to improve the quality of behavior assessments and behavior plans for students with disabilities who face disciplinary action. As with the placement of students, BCPS had increased the number of behavior assessments and behavior plans it completed as required by an earlier court order, but the quality of the assessments and plans needed improvement. Therefore, the project was implemented to provide intensive training and technical assistance for staff in how to conduct behavior assessments and write and implement behavior intervention plans. These behavior assessments and plans are substantive, not procedural requirements of the law and were included because Congress correctly determined that children should not be punished if their behavior is a result of their disabilities. Rather, when students engage in inappropriate behavior schools should figure out why and utilize positive behavior supports set out in written plans to address the causes of the behavior and prevent its recurrence.

As the attorneys for the plaintiff schoolchildren of Baltimore City, we know that the new agreement marks a significant milestone on a path that may take us on an unknown course over the next two years. However, we have begun to see the fruits of our effort in some of our clients' cases, and we are hopeful that the systemic changes that have been put in place by schools CEO Andres Alonso and his administration will truly take root and result in positive changes for all students in Baltimore City.

A hearing to consider public comments on the settlement agreement will be held on April 19 10 a.m. in courtroom 1A, United States Courthouse, 101 W. Lombard Street, Baltimore. Copies of the settlement agreement may be obtained from the Maryland State Department of Education, 1-800-535-0182.

Robert Berlow and Leslie Seid Margolis, Baltimore

Mr. Berlow and Ms. Seid Margolis are attorneys at the Maryland Disability Law Center.

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