Questions remain over Rock Terrace investigation

July 25, 2013

As Montgomery County schools and state officials continue to investigate allegations of financial mismanagement at a school for disabled students, special-education advocates say parents should also be asking themselves whether their children were denied a “free and appropriate public education” as required by federal law.

It is a question parents will likely confront district officials with Thursday night at a meeting to discuss allegations of financial mismanagement at Rock Terrace School in Rockville.

Parents have been upset that bank accounts at had been opened in their children’s names without express parental consent. They are also upset because they didn’t know that money the school system directly deposited into the bank accounts had been calculated as wages through a work-study program at the school.

The school system’s initial investigation found there was no evidence of fraud, but the program was “poorly managed” and “inappropriately used to support the educational programs at the school.”

The money students withdrew from the accounts — funded by the school system’s operating budget — was used to pay for weekly outings students took to teach them life skills. But parents also say they were sending their children to school with cash to pay for the activities each week. But why were parents paying for activities if federal law says disabled students are entitled to a “free and appropriate education,” ask parents and special-ed advocates?

“Asking parents to contribute to part of what is considered the curriculum violates the ‘F’ part of free,” said Leslie Seid Margolis, a managing attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center. “To me it is unconscionable in the guise of this program that they would set this up and use the money for community outings and still charge parents for something that should be free to them on the outset.”

Seid Margolis said the Maryland Disability Law Center has asked the state’s inspector general to investigate the matter, which is already being reviewed by Montgomery County Public Schools, the state comptroller’s office and the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office.

Community trips included visits to the grocery store, the mall and other locations that would prepare students to become independent adults after school.

In a written response to The Washington Post’s inquiry about parent concerns, Montgomery schools attorney Judy Bresler wrote: “With regard to FAPE and special education, the school system is allowed to charge incidental fees that are normally charged to non-disabled students, unless—and this is important—it is specifically outlined in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Generally, we can—and do—charge fees to non-disabled students to defray costs when the item they are using or getting becomes their property. This is consistent with the MCPS Policy on curricular expenses.”

Bresler gave an example of a student building a birdhouse for woodworking class. If the student takes the birdhouse home, the school can charge for the wood. Same for a student in a culinary arts class. If a student is using ingredients to prepare a meal, and will then eat that meal or take it home, the school can charge a fee.

“The same scenario would apply to a special education student, although it could vary depending on the specifics of the child’s IEP,” Bresler said.

Parents could be reasonably asked to pay for lunches, field trips or recreational activities that weren’t tied to a child’s specific learning goals, said Diane Smith Howard, a staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network. But, if the community outing was part of a student’s core academic programming, the school system should pay the cost of the activity.

But Smith Howard said it can be a “gray area.” She said there are still looming questions in the Rock Terrace case.

“What it looks like here is that some parents were sending in money for their kids to go on curriculum related outings,” Smith said. “And even worse it looks like at some point the kids were working in school jobs to make money that was then deposited to the credit union and then withdrawn to pay for the curriculum outings.”

Parents can ask questions about the investigation at a meeting Montgomery County officials have planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at Rock Terrace.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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