District of Columbia government officials and the city's Board of Education, twice held in contempt of a U.S. judge's order to provide adequate, free public education for the city's handicapped children, yesterday came to U.S. District Court with detailed plans to overhaul its special education system.
A major policy change underlying the wide range of proposed improvements is an agreement between the city and its school officials that the responsibility for educating those youngsters should be shared by all local government agencies through a comprehensive, city wide plan.
That compromise long had been sought by school superintendent Vincent E. Reed and others who had complained that the school system was forced to supply and finance services that should have been covered by other agencies -- principally the Department of Human Services.
Yesterday, city lawyers filed with the court an agreement signed by Mayor Marion Barry and school board president Calvin Lockridge that sets out specific roles for the Board of Education and Human Services in an attempt to end the bureaucratic infighting that has stalled efforts to get special care for handicapped youngsters.
"This agreement represents a giant step forward in relegating to the past the differences between agencies which contributed to delays in the provision of needed services," school officials said in court papers.
The plans and agreements were filed yesterday under order from Judge John Garrett Penn, who last month ruled that the school board, the mayor, Reed and the director of Human Services had deliberately violated an eight-year-old court order to provide handicapped children with a free public education.
Penn held the officials in contempt of court at the time and told them to submit a report on their efforts to comply with the order and said he would enter any additional orders needed in the future to assure that compliance.
The city and the school board agreement on responsibility for special education, as well as a proposed comprehensive plan for delivery of those services to being next January, demonstrate the intent of both sides "to close a chapter and turn a page on a new era of demonstrated cooperation so as to assure that all handicapped children and youth receive all the services to which they are entitled," the court papers said.
A key change implemented by the school system shortly after Penn issued his ruling is the establishment of a Child Study Center for evaluation children, and their placement in various programs.
Officials hope the centralization of consultation and diagnostic services will help eliminate complaints from parents about disparate treatment at a variety of centers throughout the city. The Center, located at the Logan School at 3rd and G. streets NE, began operation in late June to cut down a backlog of close to 600 cases in which children's special education needs must be evaluated, according to court papers.
The center is staffed by psychiatrists, social workers, "educational assessors" and other staff who previously had been deployed citywide.
Court papers filed yesterday noted that more than 10,000 children are sent for special education evaluation, but that less than 10 percent are actually placed in a program. Currently, about 9,000 local school children receive some form of special education, ranging from part-time speech and hearing therapy to 24-hour residential care in private facilities.
School officials have come up with staff reorganizations that they hope will speed up that identification process. For example, several layers in the administrative chain of authority will be set aside in favor of direct contact with high-ranking school officials to improve efficiency in the process.
In addition, certain basic special education programs will be established in individual schools to comply with the court's directive that handicapped children be educated in the least possible restrictive environment.
Most of the proposed changes are included in a "Comprehensive Plan for Delivery of Services to Handicapped Children and Youth," which was submitted to the court yesterday.
Together, the school system and the Human Services department spend about $40 million annually on special education services.Officials indicated yesterday that most of the changes can be carried out through realignment of existing funds, although Reed has consistently warned that the court's action will mean exta costs and cuts in other programs.
The plans submitted yesterday also call for a new office of Education Services and Operations, to open in August and be headed by an associate school superintendent. That office will monitor the Division of Special Education, which also will be reorganized, according to court papers.