Baltimore County parents and advocates for disabled children yesterday lost a battle to stop the transfer of hundreds of special education students into neighborhood schools when a U.S. District Court judge dismissed their suit charging the county with violating federal laws.
Judge John R. Hargrove did not dispute their facts or allegations -- which became a focus of a noisy movement to dump Superintendent Stuart Berger and replace the county's appointed school board with an elected group.
But he said the plaintiffs had not exhausted opportunities to get their children placed properly within the system before filing the suit in July.
School officials called the ruling a vindication of their highly criticized "inclusion" plan, which moved 350 disabled children from special education centers to neighborhood schools this fall.
But Beth Goodman, attorney for the parents and advocacy groups, said the fight will continue.
"We firmly believe that the allegations we made are serious and that they require action," she said. "We are not going away, and it's not over."
Ms. Goodman said she would likely ask Judge Hargrove to reconsider his motion so her clients can have a hearing in court.
In his opinion, Judge Hargrove said the parents unhappy with their children's placement should have first exhausted administrative appeals within the county and state education systems before bringing federal court action.
Federal laws spell out the steps schools must follow to ensure adequate services and proper instruction for disabled youngsters.
Schools must notify and consult with parents about placements, and parents can appeal decisions they don't like.
The Learning Disabilities Associations of Maryland and Metropolitan Baltimore, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO) and five families with disabled children filed suit against the school board, top administrators and state education officials in July over the transfers and what they called "the dismantling" of the county's special education schools.
The suit charged the department with "implementing a policy under which the individual needs of children with disabilities are being ignored."
It also alleged that administrators practiced "coercion, intimidation and threats against parents and special education teachers" who sought to exercise their rights under federal law.
In August, the plaintiffs sought an emergency order to stop the transfers, but U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II denied the request, calling it too expensive and harmful to the children.
The case then went before Judge Hargrove.
In his opinion yesterday, Judge Hargrove said that if the aggrieved families had followed the avenues open to them and asked for administrative due process hearings over the summer, they could have achieved what they wanted the court to do.
The law requires that a hearing take place within 45 days of the request and prohibits the county from changing a child's placement while the appeal is under way.
Judge Hargrove did not address the coercion issue, raised by teachers who said they were ordered not to recommend that certain youngsters be placed in special schools.
"We were surprised and disappointed that the teacher issues were not even addressed," said TABCO president Ray Suarez, who called the ruling "narrow."
School officials were delighted with the decision.
"It appears to be a complete vindication of our position," Dr. Berger said. "I'm very sorry that this had to happen. I hope we can get back to the business of educating children."
School system attorney Leslie Stellman said the judge's opinion does not affect parents' rights to appeal unsatisfactory placements. "He's simply saying, 'My courtroom is not the way to do it,' " Mr. Stellman said.
All of the families involved in the suit did request due process hearings, and several have appeals pending, though Ms. Goodman and Mr. Stellman did not agree on the number.
"At least some of the individual plaintiffs' cases have been resolved for this school year" without formal hearings, Ms. Goodman said. One of the original five families was replaced in the suit shortly after it was filed because it resolved the situation informally.
Despite these resolutions, "no body's happy," Ms. Goodman contended yesterday.
Further, those settlements do not address other issues, including the lack of adequate notification for parents whose children were transferred.
While the federal court may have stepped out of the issue, the debate over the inclusion program is likely to continue.
Although the Maryland Department of Education found only minor problems with the process, an independent task force appointed by the school board called it hastily implemented and ill-conceived.
The task force said many schools and teachers were not prepared for the influx of disabled children and called for an independent ombudsman to deal with complaints from parents and teachers.
The school board initially rejected the notion of an ombudsman. But under mounting public pressure, it relented last week and announced it would hire an outside agency to mediate those complaints.