By Erica L. Green
8:34 AM EDT, June 25, 2012
A little more than a decade ago, Vaughn Garris told a Baltimore Sun reporter that he didn't know if a landmark special education lawsuit named in his honor had helped Baltimore's students with disabilities get the education they deserved.
As he sat in a Maryland prison, where he was serving a life sentence for a murder conviction, the former city student who had been denied special education services was pessimistic.
“I don't know if the lawsuit helped anyone,” he said. “It didn't help me. Look where I am.”
Six months ago, The Baltimore Sun sought to find out if the lawsuit filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center in 1984 on behalf of special needs students who failed to receive services had, in fact, helped anyone.
In the spring of last year, a source in the special education community told a Baltimore Sun reporter that there was a growing fear that as the 2010 settlement agreement between the law center and the system drew to a close, ending the lawsuit, the system could fall back into its old ways. They questioned if the system was ready to come out from under the intense oversight that the lawsuit had required for more than 26 years.
In the fall, The Sun began documenting parent complaints, and reaching out to advocates, educators and past and present officials who had been intimately involved in the city’s tumultuous special education history to get a read on whether the system was still experiencing the same caliber of challenges.
The Sun then requested the city’s last year of state audits, required by the settlement agreement, which would confirm whether the anecdotes were indicative of systemic problems.
The Sun found that the lawsuit has helped the school system to improve, and in turn do better by thousands of students who two decades ago wouldn’t have had a chance of being successful in the classroom. But there are still many who continue to fall through the cracks, The Sun’s investigation found.
Sandra Spears, who heads the CityWide Special Education Advocacy Project, echoed The Sun’s findings. “All things must come to an end,” she said. “But monitoring must continue. We must always be watching.”
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