D.C. public school officials were ordered a year ago in another case to bring the school where a disabled boy crawled to the toilet for 1 1/2 years into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act by last June, court and other records show.
The order, made by an administrative hearing officer, came last October on behalf of a preschooler in the River Terrace Elementary School's Head Start program, who complained that she was having trouble getting around in her wheelchair. In March, Freddy Ramirez, 9, sued the school system to force officials to renovate the restrooms at the Northeast Washington school so that his wheelchair could get through the doors.
D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said late yesterday that school employees are working quickly to solve remaining problems at River Terrace. She said that the school's principal put in requisition orders for restroom repairs but that they got stuck in the city's procurement office for months. The school system offered at one point to transfer the boy, who has cerebral palsy, to a school that was wheelchair-accessible.
"We tried to have this child go to a school that was handicap-accessible, and the parent said no," Ackerman said. "Of course we didn't like it, but he could have been carried [by an aide] and chose not to be."
Freddy's mother, Maria Alvarez-Hernandez, said she declined the transfer because she liked the special education program the child was in and because she believed promises that the restrooms would be fixed.
"Freddy had already made so many friends, I just didn't want him to start over." she said. "And I thought [any other] school we went to might have the same problems."
Ackerman took issue with U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan's ruling last week that the restrooms used by Freddy are not ADA-compliant. She said that work on them was completed over the summer but that the city's attorneys didn't present their own architectural expert to persuade the judge. An architect who testified on Freddy's behalf cited specific measurements to show deficiencies with the restrooms.
"It's very frustrating," Ackerman said.
While waiting for repairs to be made, the school hired restroom aides to help disabled students use the toilet. But Freddy said in an interview Tuesday that he didn't want to be carried to the toilet or that he sometimes had an emergency and couldn't get to the restroom where the aide was. Then, he said, he had no choice but to crawl to the closest restroom because he could not maneuver his wheelchair through the door.
Freddy's case and that of the Head Start child underscore the inability of the D.C. public school system to comply in recent years with various orders from judges and administrative hearing officers to remedy problems with both the special education program and the system's crumbling school buildings. Indeed, most of the 146 D.C. school buildings are out of compliance with the ADA, although Ackerman said she is overseeing a project to change that, starting with work at six schools.
Ackerman said she would take disciplinary action against any school employees who "made this case more difficult than it had to be."
School officials would not allow reporters into River Terrace yesterday, and Sylvia Patrick, the principal, continued to decline to discuss Freddy's case. Last week, Hogan ordered the school system to make the restrooms there ADA-compliant within 20 days.
Special education has been one of Ackerman's biggest headaches since she became superintendent in May 1998. She recently tapped a well-respected former principal, Anne Gay, to tackle the program's problems. A new staff has been hired to provide speech and occupational therapy, and Ackerman has started a new program inside the system to cut down on the number of students who are sent to costly private schools--at District expense.
School officials were ordered last October to make River Terrace compliant with the ADA, which requires all schools that have students in wheelchairs to have accessible facilities, no later than June 15. The law sets out specific standards for different areas of the school.
But apparently unbeknown to the hearing officer, Freddy had by then been crawling to the restroom for more than a year at the school. He said he would wheel his chair to the entrance, climb out, crawl across the floor, use the stall, crawl to the sink, wash his hands and then crawl back to his chair, soiling his hands again.
Freddy's mother and his lawyer, Myrna Fawcett, said the boy liked the program he attended, despite the problems, and opted to stay in the school.
According to Kifah Jayyousi, the school system's new facilities chief, work began on fixing the school in February as a result of the hearing officer's order. But Fawcett sued in March, and the school system hired Tito Contractors of the District for $25,000, to make the restrooms ADA-compliant.
The work was scheduled to be done June 12, but it wasn't. Jayyousi said that in early June, all facilities work had to be temporarily halted because of an order by the Environmental Protection Agency to inspect all projects for asbestos contamination. He said work throughout the school, including installation of a lift in the auditorium, ramps, rails and new doors, will be done in November.
At the August hearing, architect John P.S. Salmen testified that the work was inadequate. He said the door width clearance was 26 1/2 inches, not the legally required 32 inches, and that the door pressure was 17 pounds, far in excess of the legal limit, which is less than five pounds.
Tito General Manager Kenneth Brown said he would have to review the files but that his workers always follow the specifications of a contract "to the letter."
CAPTION: Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says work on the restrooms was finished in summer.