It started as a complaint from parents outraged that a Fairfax County teacher bound their 7-year-old retarded daughter's arm in an apron to keep the child from hiding her face in her hands.
It ended in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court this week with county officials pressing truancy charges against Robert and Helen Wiech for having kept their daughter out of school since last April. School officials have taken an increasingly hard line against parents who refuse to follow school system guidelines for educating handicapped children.
Judge Michael Valentine Thursday ordered the parents to enroll Sarah Wiech in a school or home education program within 60 days. If the Wieches don't comply, they will face a $100 fine on the misdemeanor charge of failing to comply with state mandatory school attendance laws, which has seldom been used to prosecute parents. Under the judge's orders, the parents are not required to place the child in the county's Kilmer Center for multiple-handicapped children where the girl was enrolled until last April 29.
Juvenile court authorities said only a handful of parents are charged with violating the child school attendance laws each year. County law enforcement and school officials said they believe the Wiech case is the first in recent years involving a handicapped child.
The focus of the controversy is blond, curley-haired Sarah, a 7-year-old with the mind and body of a 3 1/2-year-old, according to her mother. School officials said Sarah's mental capacity is closer to that of a 2-year-old, Wiech said.
The youngster suffers from multiple handicaps. She is emotionally disturbed, has hearing problems and is autistic, according to her mother. She reacts to anger, frustration and boredom by scratching and picking at her arms and face until they bleed. In calmer moments, she buries her face in her hands -- an attempt to hide from people.
Those are the habits a teacher at Kilmer Center was trying to correct last April, according to the parents.
The teacher reportedly wrapped the youngster in a regular household apron, forcing the girl's hand to remain in the pocket. The technique is not uncommon, according to authorities familiar with the training and education of the handicapped.
"Sarah came home from school and broke down emotionally," claimed Helen Wiech. "She was almost in a trance. She went to school with no wounds on her arms and came back bleeding, with self-inflicted wounds on her arms." The mother charged her daughter's reaction was a direct result of the teacher's use of the apron to correct the child's habits.
According to accounts given by school officials and the Wieches, the school system gave the family several choices for Sarah's education. Each was unsatisfactory to the Wieches and they responded by withdrawing the child from school and keeping her at home with little or no educational training.
Although the school system has due process procedures and other mechanisms through which parents can attempt to change their children's placement, the Wieches did not pursue any of them, according to Dorothy Haramis, director of special education programs for the county school system.
The school system's pursuit of the Wiech case reflects its "get-tough" policy toward special education, into which the county and state governments have poured an increasing amount of money in recent years under pressure of new federal laws.
The school board attempted unsuccessfully to win a test case this summer in which the county tried to force the parents of a 16-year-old retarded McLean girl to move her from a residential institution in Maryland to Kilmer Center. The school system argued it had the facilities to care for the child, Paula Jane Hurley, and should not be paying an out-of-state institution for providing the same services.
The parents convinced the judge that their daughter should remain at the Maryland school.
The arguments were much the same in the Wiech case.
"We feel we have a program that is appropriate" for Sarah Wiech, said Haramis. School officials said the parents are hampering the child's emotional and educational development by keeping her out of school.