City school officials assure special education advocates at meeting

Baltimore school officials assured special-education advocates Wednesday that efforts to provide students with a quality education will continue after a lawsuit ends this year that has kept the system under a microscope for 28 years.

In a forum hosted by the city school board, officials outlines the progress the school system has made in complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guarantees students with special needs an appropriate free education.

For decades the system failed to provide educational services to special-needs students, spurring the landmark suit filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center in 1984, which will come to an end in the fall under a settlement agreement.

"The question we have to continue to ask ourselves is: Are we doing the best we can for our children?" said school board commissioner Jerrelle Francois. "Not because of [the lawsuit], but because it's the right thing to do."

The forum came on the heels of a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that found the system was still struggling to properly identify special-education students, assess them in the time outlined by the federal law, provide required services in general education classrooms, and properly document suspensions to ensure students received services when they returned. Most recently, state officials found that the district was also not properly transporting students to school, with some not being picked up at all.

Under the agreement, the system has to meet certain goals in order for the lawsuit to end. It has to prove that it has continued to make progress in a number of areas: delivering required services to students, giving them support they need to obtain a regular education and working to reduce the numbers that are suspended each year.

"We are hopeful that the [settlement agreement] will end" the suit, said Kim Hoffmann, who oversees special education for the school system and maintained that the system has come an "amazingly long way" in delivering pertinent services to students.

Advocates praised the system's progress under city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, but also took the opportunity to drive home the fact that they don't want the system's vigilance to end with the lawsuit.

"We must see that this doesn't regress," said Sandra Spears, director of CityWide Special Education Advocacy Project Inc., "and that this doesn't repeat itself."

The lawsuit "opened a lot of doors for us," said Chicquita Crawford, a parent advocate and mother of a former special-education student. "Please let us not forget what we need to do to continue to move forward. I don't want the doors to close when the lawsuit closes."

Officials acknowledged challenges but said that the system is committed to providing extensive professional development and support to educators, and implementing new programs for special-needs students.

"There is no other city in America that is doing what we're doing," said David Stone, a city school board member who is director of operations for special education at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a nonprofit institution for students with disabilities.

Officials also quelled fears that the school system wouldn't be as eager to engage parents and advocates when the lawsuit ends.

"Those [efforts] will remain," said Sonja Santelises, the system's chief academic officer. "I know it remains to be seen, and I'm sure we will be held accountable. Meeting with parents, the community is not a compliance issue."

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