Inching toward reform


LATE LAST year, the parties to the 14-year-old Baltimore schools special education lawsuit reached agreement on the steps necessary to end court supervision by June 2002.

While this is good news, here are some reasons the lawsuit is not yet over:

A 6-year-old girl with speech and emotional disabilities recently was suspended from school for inappropriate behavior, though she never received services she needed to help her change her behavior.

A 12-year-old boy was referred for special education services in 1996. Despite legal requirements, the school system did not evaluate him until late last school year, and he received no services until this past September. As a result, he has fallen further behind his classmates. His already low self-esteem is now dismal. He has started to misbehave in class.

A 17-year-old special education student, who had been in a residential treatment center for emotional problems, returned to Baltimore schools, where three months into the school year half of her teachers were still unaware of her special needs. The school system had been notified of her return a month in advance.

These examples -- and there are many others -- are why there still is a special education lawsuit. These students were denied services that they are entitled to under state and federal laws, and for which the city schools receive millions of dollars each year.

When such situations stop happening, the lawsuit will end.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit does have positive results. Students deprived of services can receive free summer programs, tutoring and other services. Also, when cases like these are exposed, the bureaucracy usually moves more quickly than in the past to provide needed services.

But getting services months or years late cannot really compensate for what these students endure. Even court orders cannot give a student another chance to be a happy and successful first-grader.

This lawsuit was brought to prevent these types of situations from happening. Toward that end, representatives of the city schools, the state and the students recently agreed on a new court order that gives the school system additional time to fix remaining problems. Because the school system failed to implement a 1997 court order fully, the new order requires it to build its capacity to deliver timely and quality special education services in specific ways.

For example, the school system now is collaborating with a professor at Johns Hopkins University to help teachers of the early primary grades adapt their teaching methods to meet the needs of students with disabilities and those at risk of academic failure.

Recently, teachers received two days of training, and they may attend summer sessions.

The latest agreement was possible because the school system was frank about its severe problems. For example, it acknowledged that interruptions in delivering required services had actually increased by a third in the first year of management by this school board.

Also, the school system under-counted the number of teachers to be trained. So some 700 teachers -- 47 percent more than expected -- completed the training. Now the school system has to reconsider plans for the important follow-up, in-class observations because it doesn't have the wherewithal to evaluate all of the teachers.

While these kinds of admissions are certainly not grounds for optimism, the spirit that led to their revelation is.

For too long the school administration on North Avenue has treated special education as a distraction from its "real" mission, rather than as fundamental to it.

The same structural deficiencies that have prevented the system from fixing special education also hamper all reform efforts. When the system begins to cure the root causes of its special education failures, it will be taking major steps toward resolving its overall problems. Special education can become the first example of how an open, honest and potentially competent school system achieves real and lasting reform.

Hopefully, this is the outcome we'll soon see. And when students like these receive the services the law requires, there will be no lawsuit. May that day come soon.

Mark A. Mlawer represented city students with disabilities on the court-ordered Management Oversight Team from 1994-1997.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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