U.S. faults state on education of handicapped children


Maryland is failing to ensure that the state's 88,000 schoolchildren with disabilities are getting a proper education, a new federal report says.

The report, written by auditors from the U.S. Department of Education and released by state education officials yesterday, finds three significant shortcomings in Maryland's compliance with federal law:

* Children who are placed in "special education" programs because of mental, emotional or physical handicaps are supposed to be kept in regular classes or regular schools to the extent possible. The report says that Maryland has not diligently required school systems to hold to that requirement. The proportion of Maryland children assigned to separate schools -- where they have no contact with children in regular programs -- is double the national average.

* A child's teachers and counselors are supposed to draw up an "individual education plan" that will plot the most effective course for that child, and then decide on a program that fits the plan. Yet the federal auditors who wrote the report found children who were placed in special schools before their plans were written -- which is against the law.

* The law requires extensive procedural safeguards to ensure that parents have rights in deciding how to place students and that parents are aware of those rights. Yet a federal review of eight Maryland school systems found that dozens of such safeguards were not in place or not being followed.

"I view this as an indication that Maryland has a lot of work to do," said Leslie Margolis, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center, which has been critical of the state's handling of children with disabilities.

Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent, said he believes that Maryland schools do a good job educating handicapped children but that the state needs to follow federal regulations more closely.

"Make sure the right service is delivered to the child -- that's the bottom line," he said.

"As a state, we feel good about that. We think we're doing that. The purpose of these regulations is to make us doggone sure," Mr. Shilling added.

But Lawrence Ringer, one of the authors of the report, said yesterday that Maryland's shortcomings go beyond a simple failure to follow correct bureaucratic procedures.

"It's not true that we simply found the state was not documenting things properly," he said.

The individual plans, for instance, demonstrate how decisions were reached for each child, he said. If they are incomplete or lacking, it suggests that that decision may have been made haphazardly. As for procedural safeguards, he said, they are critical if parents are to have any role in the deliberations affecting their children.

The report was the result of the second federal review of Maryland special education. The first review, which began in 1986, led to a stinging criticism of the state, but was withdrawn under pressure from state officials who derided it as sloppy and incomplete. U.S. education officials said they would do the review over again.

The report released, though using much more measured language than the first report, reached essentially the same conclusions.

This time, however, state officials said they were satisfied with its thoroughness and recommendations.

"The detail of the report is striking," said Richard Steinke, assistant state superintendent. "They've given us excellent direction."

The state has 60 days to tell the U.S. Education Department how it intends to correct the problems uncovered in the review.

One advocate for disabled children, Mark Mlawer of the Maryland Coalition for Integrated Education, said he doubted that state officials were unaware of the problems before they received the federal report.

"It's rather shocking," he said, "that safeguards that were supposed to be in place in the late 1970s are still not there. And it's even more shocking that the state wasn't able to find this out in all that time."

"If we knew some of these problems existed, we would have done something about it," Mr. Steinke said.

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