Five years after a federal judge ruled that the city must provide an adequate, publicly supported education to all physically, mentally and emotionally handicapped school-aged children, the District of Columbia still fails in that task, lawyers for the Mental Health Law Project will argue today in U.S. District Court.
The lawyers' arguments, which are disputed on several point by District officials, are in response to the city's periodic filing of its plan for implementing the 1972 court order.
In their review of the plan, the attorneys (who represented seven students on whose behalf the court order was won) charged that the city fails to provide adequate special education in a variety of D.C. institutions and fails to evaluate and place students as quickly as required by the decree.
But the director of one of the institutions named by the lawyers - Cedar Knoll, part of the city's Children's Center complex, where the attorneys charge that "special education services and virtually non-existent" - disputed the accuracy of some of the lawyers contentions. And the school system's director of special education said some of the causes for delay are out of the city's hands.
The allegations and responses to them do point up one continuing problem in implementing the decree, however - difficulties in coordination between the school system and the city's Department of Human Resources (DHR).
"A full year after the (report by a court-appointed special master who reviewed weakness in the city program) . . . defendants are still unable to pinpoint who should do what, when and how," the lawyers wrote.
In their plan the city failed to mention one major institution, St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where school-age children with special education problems live, the lawyers said. As are the other insitutions named, St. Elizabeth's administered by DHR.
Eugene Stammeyer, associate director of psychology at St. Elizabeth's, said in an affidavit that the head of special education for D.C. Public Schools, Doris Woodson, "refused to recognize" that the schools have a legal responsibility to provide special educational services to youths covered by the decree who are at St. Elizabeth's.
"That's not exactly accurate," said Woodson. She said that the schools have had difficulty getting information from the hospital about which St. Elizabeth's patients are wards of DHR. DHR, in an agreement with the school system, has taken for itself the responsibility of providing those students with an appropriate education.
"They don't know which is which," said Woodson, who also said that this was the first year St. Elizabeth's had ever requested teachers from the D.C. public schools. The request coincided with a cutback in the teaching staff at the hospital. "They're asking us to take up the slack. It's not that easy," she said.
The lawyers also charge that at Cedar Knoll school there are "at least 340 (students) whose special education needs have not even been evaluated. Their classes are overcrowded and understaffed; equipment and suppliers are lacking or not fully operational. The teacher receive little or no in-service training and in many cases they do not posses the same special education certification requirements for public or private school teachers."
Cedar Knoll Director R. Rimsky Atkinson defended the school's programs as adequate, although he said he would like to see improvements, including additional teachers. All students are tested and enrolled in the institution's school and are "all getting special education," he said.
The court makes the determination that students go to Cedar Knoll rather than to some other educational setting, said Atkinson. The court also periodically evaluates what Cedar Knoll is doing for inmates on an individual basis.
Although the teachers at the school are not certified by the D.C. public schools, said principal Lawrence Manning, they are certified by DHR. All academic teachers have special education training, he said.
Affidavits filed by teachers at Cedar Knoll said that the student-teacher ratio in the school-based program is 28 to 1 (340 students to 12 regular teachers). Atkinson said there are 21 academic teachers. The current population of Cedar Knoll is about 300, he said, although it usually is higher in the fall.
During an unannounced visit to the school, a reporter found 14 children and one teacher in each of three classrooms visited. What was going on in the classes ranged from a boisterous gripe session in one language arts class to another where students at fifth grade level and above worked quietly from workbooks on a variety of math problems, ranging from simple multiplication and division to square roots and plane geometry.
A file pulled during the same visit reflected that, at least in the case of one student, four types of tests, including two tests for social attitudes and emotional problems and two for academic achievement, had been administered on two occasions. The file also contained records from the student's previous public school. However, the school serves two types of students - committed and detained. Detained students are usually not completely evaluated, since they may not stay for long, said Atkinson.
"I think our deficiencies are used as an excuse for getting kids out rather than as a reason for improving our deficiencies," said Atkinson. Most of the students at Cedar Knoll are "better off here than in the community even with our deficiencies," he said.
The lawyers also charged that 35 multiply handicapped children under the age of 18 at the Glenn Dale Hospital for the chronically ill receive no educational services and called a plan to improve services at the Forest Haven institution for the mentally retarded "a model of vagueness, contingent upon future funding and uncertain scheduling."
Woodson said she has detailed a staff member fulltime to Forest Haven for the past two months and has reallocated $4,500 to pay for educational assessments there.
On the question of delays in evaluation and placement of students in regular schools, "our track record has improved," said Woodson. She cited statistics that indicated a variety of reasons beyond those for which the school system could be held accountable in placing children in special education.
Among those were cases were situations where students had moved, where they had been placed elsewhere by their parents, where they had been recommended for placement in private institutions but had not yet been accepted, where parents did not cooperate in the placement, where students were incarcerated, where families had disappeared leaving no forwarding address and one where a parent had requested a delay to seek another evaluation.