Politicians and state officials heard impassioned appeals yesterday to save Columbia's Cedar Lane School for severely disabled students, despite federal guidelines that threaten such schools.
The pleas came during a meeting at the school set up at the request of parents who have been frightened by a recent letter from Howard educators warning that alternatives to the school would be considered for Cedar Lane's students.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to preserve what I know is my daughter's second home," an impassioned Christine Zidek told representatives from the Howard County Council, House of Delegates and the county executive's office, along with members of the Maryland State Department of Education who had gathered to tour Cedar Lane and talk about its future.
"It's not just a school to a great many of us," said Zidek, whose 8-year-old daughter, Briana, has a neurodevelopment disorder called Rett's Syndrome. "I was told my daughter would never walk, and now she's walking 250 feet thanks to the amazing people here."
The 22-year-old school, which is in dire need of replacement, is one of the relatively few separate facilities in the state meant to educate those with multiple and profound disabilities, many of whom cannot walk, talk or even swallow.
State officials had made a preliminary commitment to help fund a new building for Cedar Lane because it can no longer accommodate the needs of its population.
But that promise was yanked away recently as administrators struggle to deal with increased pressure to educate children with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment" possible, which often means in classes with nondisabled peers.
Many parents of the county's 5,000 disabled students oppose separate schools regardless of the severity of a child's disability, but Cedar Lane parents argue that for their 115 children, a separate building really is the least restrictive environment.
Tired of sitting tight
Those varying interpretations and a negative state evaluation from the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs have led to parents of Cedar Lane students being told to sit tight while the county and state determine what might happen to their children.
The county school system has set up a committee to look at the best way to proceed, but parents are not sitting tight because they fear that will mean the end of Cedar Lane and the dispersal of its students.
"I'm highly concerned we're attacking the easy target," said Bob Seipel, an Army major whose 4-year-old son, William, attends Cedar Lane.
By closing Cedar Lane, the state, which is under a federal mandate to better integrate disabled students with nondisabled students, could improve its statistics and make it appear it was moving toward that goal, Seipel said.
'The real issue'
But that appearance would be false, he said.
"The real issue is not with these students," Seipel said. "It's with students who have a lesser degree of disability and their integration."
Jerry White, a program manager at the Maryland State Department of Education, said Cedar Lane is caught in the middle.
"It's a very changing world in special education, and with that we want to make sure our students with disabilities and those at Cedar Lane have an opportunity to be full participants in education," White said. "We are not here to hurt kids."
But putting Cedar Lane children in with nondisabled students would do just that said Michael Joyce, whose 18-year-old son, Ian, has Batten's Disease, which has robbed him of his ability to communicate, eat, see and move.
"These children are the neediest of the needy," Joyce said. "[They] have such special needs. It warrants a special school."
Both Joyce's and Seipel's sons have "do not resuscitate" requests on file with the school.
They have multiple seizures, gastrostomy tubes for feeding and tracheotomies. They require serious medical attention, and their presence in a general education classroom would be disruptive to them and others, both fathers say.
No solutions came from yesterday's meeting, though questions developed at every turn.
County special education administrators wondered if they should bother studying ways to make Cedar Lane more inclusive if the state wants to eliminate separate facilities.
Parents wanted to know if that indeed was what the state wants, and some politicians wondered how they could pay for it all.
Howard County House delegation chairman Frank S. Turner's question was the most hopeful.
"If every student in this school has a need to be here, I can't see why it can't go on," Turner said. "If we can make a strong case, Cedar Lane can be around for many many years to come, right?"