Flutist, county hope to reach harmony over band


Randi Wixom, a 16-year-old teen-ager who likes pop music, a special boy in her life and playing the flute, is small in stature. But she took on a big county school system and last week claimed victory.

All Randi wanted to do was to practice with her fellow Catonsville High School band members. But she has used a wheelchair for the past three years, and the band room is down a flight of stairs in the basement of the school.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, responding to a suit filed by the National Disability Action Center, told lawyers for the Baltimore County school system to work with lawyers from the Washington-based center on ways to allow Randi to practice with the band.

The groups are to report back to the judge today.

Randi has huge brown eyes, a pretty smile and an undiagnosed neurological disease that robbed her of mobility without the use of a wheelchair.

Randi was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was about 2 years old, said her mother, Christine.

She was 8 when she noticed that her legs were giving out on her.

"I started walking funny, and I fell often when walking to school," Randi said last week, relaxing on the front porch of her Catonsville home. "My legs just got weaker, weaker, weaker," she said.

Eventually she had to use crutches, then a wheelchair.

Randi's love of the flute began when she first picked up the instrument in the fifth grade. She used to be able to make it down the school basement stairs on crutches.

Sometimes, schoolmates would carry Randi down, and sometimes she got there literally by the seat of her pants. "It was kind of embarrassing," she said in her low-key manner.

She and her mother began talking to school administrators about alternatives while she was in her sophomore year.

"My mother spoke to the principal and vice principal, and nothing happened," she said. Randi, who plans to major in elementary education at Brigham Young University, will be a senior when school starts in September.

The school system offered to bus Randi to Owings Mills High School, where all areas are accessible, or to give her a private tutor. But Randi, who began taking lessons from the private tutor in January, found that left her unprepared to play with the group during concerts.

In April, the family filed the lawsuit.

Stephen W. Fisher, principal of Catonsville High School, said he could not talk about Randi because the case is still in court.

Leslie R. Stellman, an attorney for the county schools, said the cost of putting in an elevator lift was $150,000 -- more than the school system could afford. "We simply can't afford extensive renovations," Mr. Stellman said. He said there was no other place in the 40-year-old building where the band room could be located.

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