The families and groups who sued the Baltimore County school board to stop its controversial inclusion plan for disabled children have changed their minds about dropping their lawsuit.
Angered by the school board's decision to try to recoup $50,000 it claims it spent on legal fees, the group has decided to appeal the dismissal of its suit by a U.S. District Court judge.
The board's punch and the plaintiffs' counterpunch means that a bitter fight over the transfer of handicapped youngsters to neighborhood schools, which had largely died down, is likely to drag on for some time.
Lawyers for the Learning Disabilities Association of Maryland and Metropolitan Baltimore, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), and five families of disabled children filed notice of appeal yesterday in the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
"In light of recent events, we have determined that we must appeal," the group said in a statement issued late yesterday by TABCO and the learning disabilities associations.
"There has been significant hardening of the position of the school system. . . . Not only [are they] unwilling to make necessary adjustments and accommodations, but they are again becoming increasingly aggressive in their approach," it continued.
The most aggressive act was the school board's decision this week to ask the U.S. District Court's permission to seek reimbursement from the Washington law firm that represented the disabled children and advocacy groups. The court has not ruled on that motion.
Originally, the plaintiffs decided not to appeal after Judge John R. Hargrove dismissed their case on the grounds that the families had not exhausted administrative avenues within the school system. He did not rule on the merits of their case.
The plaintiffs said they thought the judge's decision was wrong and would ultimately be reversed. But in "walking away," they lTC said, they were taking the first step toward resolving a fiery confrontation over the administration's decision to transfer hundreds of disabled students from special education centers to neighborhood schools.
"We ended this lawsuit in good faith," said TABCO president Ray Suarez. "We were willing to get out of it, but obviously this had to be a scorched earth policy. I was flabbergasted when this came down," he said of the school board's decision to seek payment of its legal fees.
Irene Spencer, president of the Learning Disabilities Association, said, "They have chosen to make the wrong people mad. I am not a quitter."
In addition to filing the appeal, the plaintiffs will ask the court to deny the board's motion to recover the legal fees, said their attorney, Beth Goodman.
Although school board attorney Leslie Stellman said the pending action is against the plaintiffs' lawyers and not the plaintiffs, Ms. Goodman sees it differently. "This is a very calculated attempt to make it impossible for them or anyone in their position to get legal representation," she said.
Mr. Stellman said the notice of appeal "came as a surprise" to him. By dropping the suit, he said, the plaintiffs indicated they were satisfied with the progress of the inclusion process, which led to the transfer of about 350 disabled youngsters out of special centers and into neighborhood schools this fall.
The board feels fiscally responsible to the county's students and taxpayers and is interested only in recovering the "upwards of $50,000" it has spent on this case, Mr. Stellman said.