A new report on the state of special education in Montgomery County shows an overwhelming majority of parents say they now are satisfied with the program, following years of bitter battles with school officials that produced budget-busting legal bills.

That said, the report also found that the system has a long way to go to improve its dealings with black and Hispanic children.

Eighty-five percent of the nearly 3,000 parents surveyed said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the education and services their special-ed children were receiving. The sample represents 19 percent of the nearly 16,000 special-ed children in the system.

The upbeat review follows a contentious era when unhappy parents' lawsuits cost the county $11 million from 1994 to 1998, the highest legal costs for special-ed of any jurisdiction in the state. And a 1995 report castigated the special-ed administrators for waste, delays and mismanagement.

"The parent satisfaction surveys are quite good. And that surprised everyone," said Margaret McLaughlin, report author and special-ed professor at the University of Maryland. "There has been a feeling that this program has been under siege. We found that issues are definitely being addressed."

But for Bob Astrove, chairman of Parents for Options in Special Education, a group of 100 families, the report completely missed the heart of the problem: trust.

"Parents are in the mode of having to fight for everything with the county. You shouldn't have to be that involved to get an appropriate placement for your child," he said. "It's an issue of confidence. I don't see how you can fix any of these other problems until you address that."

Astrove dismissed the rosy parent satisfaction survey. Instead, he looked at the number of complaints filed last year: 372. "That means one out of every 42 families in special-ed filed a formal complaint for administrative review, mediation or a hearing before a judge," he said. "There's something wrong when you reach these levels."

The survey results were only one part of a report presented to Board of Education members last night. The report also criticized the system for allowing far too many African American and Hispanic children to be labeled disabled or emotionally disturbed. And once they are, the special-ed students too often remain "segregated" from other students and fall further behind the general curriculum.

"There's a lot of concern that once minority students get into special education classes, they tend to be placed in self-contained classrooms and are far more likely to be removed from the mainstream," McLaughlin said.

And in a trend that is hardly unique to Montgomery County, McLaughlin found--and school administrators admitted--that too often well-meaning teachers will put struggling Hispanic or African American students into special-ed classes, thinking that because the classes are smaller, students will get more help.

Similarly, teachers frustrated with the disruptive behavior of a student sometimes push to have them labeled emotionally disturbed.

"We heard over and over, nationally and in Montgomery County, that too often, special ed becomes the only support for needy kids," McLaughlin said. "The student may need help, but if they're not truly disabled, then we do have a difficulty."

Ray Bryant, director of special education for Montgomery County, calls the placement of struggling students in special-ed classes an example of "compassionate coding" but still wrong. He said it also is unacceptable to deal with disruptive students by shifting them to the special classes.

"Sometimes behaviors may be disturbing, but that doesn't mean the child is disturbed. It doesn't make them emotionally disabled," he said.

Still, he said it has been difficult to sort out who exactly is being incorrectly directed to special-ed programs. "If I knew why African American and Hispanic kids were overrepresented in special ed, they wouldn't be," he said.

The report recommends better tracking of the performance of special-ed programs and better support of classroom teachers to deal with disabled students. It also calls on the administration to better recognize when students are troubled but not mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed.

The authors encourage school officials to place more special-ed students in regular classrooms, a practice called mainstreaming. They also want the amount of busing to be reduced, better neighborhood school programs and less paperwork for teachers.