Cedar Lane, a school in Columbia beloved by parents as a haven for Howard County's most severely disabled students, could be closed some day soon because of a federal mandate that requires the disabled to be educated as much as possible with other students.
That federal education rule threatens a number of special-purpose schools in the Baltimore metropolitan area, educators say.
Parents of the 115 students at Cedar Lane were warned in a letter sent by school administrators to the school's PTA president last week asserting that state and federal requirements no longer allow for separate buildings for students with disabilities.
The letter said the county needed to come up with a plan "to educate students with multiple intense needs who have previously been served at Cedar Lane."
The forming of a committee to consider the school's fate has set off fierce complaints from parents, who feel they have been misled and abandoned, and that their children will suffer.
Although there are inadequacies at the school -- the equipment cluttering the halls, the urine-stained carpets, the changing tables in open-air classrooms -- Cedar Lane parents say they are thankful that the school exists because of the miracles its staff has worked with their children. Until recently, they've also believed a new facility was on the way, with ground set to be broken this year.
In 1999, the county and state agreed that Cedar Lane, built in 1981, required dire renovations. The building can't accommodate the equipment its staff and students need. The classrooms and nurses station are too small, the ventilation system too poor.
A study last year recommended that a new facility be built instead. Funding was sought from the state. But the tide had turned in the past three years.
"The climate for special education has changed. The federal requirements have tightened significantly," said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent in the division of special education.
Baglin's office has asked Howard County to look at other avenues for servicing Cedar Lane's population, such as building wings onto typical schools.
"To say that this caught us off guard would be a little bit of an understatement," said Carey M. Wright, director of Howard County's Office of Special Education and Student Services.
Wright said the committee isn't designed to dismantle Cedar Lane, but that it has to come up with a plan the state will accept before it can proceed with renovations or rebuilding.
"There is a place for Cedar Lane," Wright said. "That goes without saying. There are children at that school that need that level of intense services, but we have to look at programming across the county for all of these children and decide who to keep at Cedar Lane."
In 2001, the federal Office of Special Education Programs reviewed the state's compliance with a portion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that promises disabled children education in the "least restrictive environment" that their disability allows.
For some, this means being in a class with nondisabled peers. For others, including many at Cedar Lane, this means in a separate facility.
OSEP's findings were so negative, though, that Maryland has been placed on a national watch risk list, Baglin said, and cut off from federal funds until it cleans up its act.
The OSEP report said Maryland did not offer adequate LRE access, that it did not have the proper supports in place in general education settings to do so, that it did not properly assess disabled students and that it too often did not show a compelling need for separate facility education.
Howard County was identified as among the worst offenders in the state.
The federal law allows for separate facilities "when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."
But the state is reluctant to classify anyone at this level, instead pointing to counties on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland that have small populations of disabled students and no separate schools to teach them. That's the new goal.
"The county is waking up to a terrible problem they have," said Michael Joyce, whose son Ian, attends Cedar Lane. "And I'm afraid they're going to say, 'To hell with Cedar Lane.' "
Hard to see difference
At first glance, it's hard to tell there's anything different about Cedar Lane.
Colorful posters paper the walls: scenes showing African-American achievements for Black History Month, Valentine's Day art, inspirational quotes. Kids grin, teachers talk shop, and the principal walks through the passageways patting children on their shoulders.
But on the message boards in the halls, there are no notes about after-school clubs, basketball games, dances.
Instead, there are instructions detailing what to do in the event of choking, how to handle seizures, how to prevent death. And in classrooms, children's photos are tacked to the walls next to art projects and scary words like shunt and splint protocol and titanium plate.
"We see life and death every day with these kids," said Lynn Doughty, a full-time nurse at Cedar Lane. "We have seizures every day, all the time, cardiac arrests. When things go bad, they go really bad."
Most of Cedar Lane's students have multiple disabilities, with profound versions of maladies including autism and Rett's syndrome, and little-known Batten's disease. They often have physical and neurological impairments. A third of them have to use feeding tubes at lunchtime, where they take their meals lined up in a row so they can be together.
Most are in wheelchairs. Most will never read, most will never work, and many won't survive their teens.
Their parents are resigned to this and worn out from fighting for a meaningful education for their children, they say. Nearly all of them love Cedar Lane -- for its hard-working staff and the opportunities it affords their children, not its bricks and mortar.
"Having Ian in [a regular school] would be detrimental to him and to everyone else. It would be too disruptive," Joyce said.
Ian has Batten's disease, a condition that allowed him and his twin, Joey, to grow into walking, talking toddlers and then slowly regress, developing frequent seizures and losing their sight, mobility and ability to communicate.
Ian is 18, and his parents don't think he has long left to live. Joey died two years ago. What he needs in a school, they say, is a staff that can handle him, care for him, and protect him for as long as his body will allow.
"Having him out at a regular school sitting in math or English class just to be with peers, what is he going to get out of that?" Joyce's wife, Rosemarie, asked.
There is a continuum within Howard County's 5,005 disabled students, much like a bell curve, said Cedar Lane's principal, Nicholas Girardi, who wants a new Cedar Lane to be built on a campus with other general education schools to meet the LRE requirements.
"Ninety-five percent of [special needs] students can be in a general education program," Girardi said. "But there's still that other 5 percent who need something different, something else along the continuum. That might be a Cedar Lane, that might be a nonpublic school placement somewhere else."
For those children, the goals are different, often to simply learn how to live in a group home later on or connect the idea that pushing a switch might turn on a television.
Their version of inclusion with nondisabled peers might be to take trips into the community to learn about the grocery store, or to be mentored by nondisabled teen-agers within Cedar Lane's walls, rather than sit beside them in class and learn to find China on a map.
No one has officially rejected the new school, though the county can't move forward without state sanction, and the state won't grant any until the county delivers a report about its plans for improved inclusion, which effectively passes the buck back in Howard's direction.
Meeting on Feb. 27
Wright's committee, charged with developing the report, will hold its first meeting Feb. 27, and expects to outline parameters for change by June.
"Right now there's nothing to react to because there is no plan," Girardi said. "If there is a Cedar Lane in that plan, we'll be fine and happy. But if there isn't, we'll ask why, and say who's really in violation of the law."