Disabled student wins access to band room


A federal judge told the Baltimore County school system yesterday to negotiate with a group representing a disabled Catonsville High School student and come up with a proposal that will let her play the flute in the school's band.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered attorneys retained by the county system to meet Monday with representatives of the National Disability Action Center to discuss alternatives to allow 16-year-old Randi Wixom to make the trip down a flight of stairs each day to the basement band room in her wheelchair.

Randi, who will be a senior at Catonsville High School next fall, was not available for comment after the judge's decision, but her attorneys called it a move in the right direction.

"We have some concerns, but basically we're pleased," said Timothy Cook, an attorney for the center.

The Washington-based center filed a request for an injunction several weeks ago to make the band room accessible to Randi -- despite school officials' objection that making the basement wheelchair-accessible would mean expensive renovations at the school.

Leslie R. Stellman, an attorney retained by the county schools, said the necessary renovations would cost at least $150,000. They would include installing an elevator shaft and extensive asbestos removal.

The school system instead offered to bus Randi 17 miles each day to the Owings Mills High School, where they said she could play in the band because the building is newer and 100 percent accessible to the handicapped, according to Mr. Stellman.

Robert Reuter, general manager of Access Systems, a Baltimore company that installs handicapped-access equipment and does renovation work to make buildings accessible to the handicapped, presented a list of options he said would give Randi access to the Catonsville music room without major renovations.

A Garaventa Stair-Trac, which "looks like a baby tank," could be purchased for about $7,000 and could be attached to her wheelchair,allowing her to climb or descend the school steps, he said.

Such a device, which has tank-like treads that attach to the wheelchair's base, is used to make basement rooms accessible at the Peabody Conservatory, he said. He added that one was used recently to take someone in a wheelchair down 200 steps into the Luray Caverns in Virginia.

Mr. Reuter said that there also are private firms that could be hired to pay someone to carry Randi down the steps for about $64 a day. The cost to bus a student from Catonsville High School to Owings Mills High School, as is proposed for Randi, would be about $51.90, he said.

The school could also, he said, move the band room to the rear of the school auditorium at a minimum cost and install a portable lift on to the auditorium stage for about $9,000 that would give Randi access to the stage.

After hearing the suggestions, Judge Garbis expressed frustration that the case had reached a point where it was before him in federal court. The dispute should have been resolved between the parties long before the lawsuit was filed, he said.

"These things should have been readily apparent to anyone in the school system who works with these people," he said.

But each side blamed the other for communications problems.

Attorneys for the schools said dialogue was impossible because attorneys for the student seemed more interested in a confrontation andmore anxious to sue than to resolve the issue amicably.

"We asked for a report from their experts in March, and it contained none of these suggestions. We asked for alternatives in a conference call on Friday, and they would not give us any. They said, 'We'll see you in court,' " said Mr. Stellman. "Everyone here wants what's best for that student."

But attorneys for Randi said they were forced to file suit last March against the school system. Their suggestions for improvements at the school were continually rebuffed, they said. Once school officials decided to offer busing to Randi, their minds were made up, and all negotiations ended, they added.

"They think it's OK to treat people with disabilities differently. Our point is that it's not. It's no different than race discrimination," said Mr. Cook.

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