Pressure Eases for Montgomery Court

The case of a woman who had accused another of pulling her hair in competition for a Rockville parking space won't be going to trial. Neither will the one of the woman charged with assault for spilling a glass of water on someone or the case filed by the man who accused his neighbor of trespassing in a dispute over a fence.

They are among almost 300 citizen-generated criminal complaints dropped or resolved out of court as the result of a plan to help unclog Montgomery County's busy District Court by screening cases sooner, prosecutors said last week.

Of the 450 citizen complaints screened since July, when the plan was implemented, 65 percent were resolved through mediation, by requiring the suspect to perform community service or by determining that there was not enough evidence to prove that a crime was committed.

Prosecutors say they expect those numbers to grow significantly next year as they turn more often to out-of-court mediation to resolve minor disputes, a relief for a court system that typically sees 14,000 criminal cases each year.

In Maryland, residents have the constitutional right to file a criminal complaint, under oath, directly with a court commissioner. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges say that system is abused when disputes turn into "junk" criminal cases that should not be prosecuted but tie up precious court time as soon as a file is created and begins its way through the system.

Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said prosecutors now screen citizen-generated complaints within 72 hours. This helps them gather more evidence or find witnesses while prosecution-worthy cases are still fresh, and the rest are weeded out, he said.

John McCarthy, the deputy state's attorney who oversees the screening program, said complaints of domestic violence or child abuse are screened separately and still may be prosecuted even if the complainant changes his or her mind.

-- Katherine Shaver

Children's Therapy Center Thrives

After Margie LeVant's son Jonah was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, she and her husband, Michael Gilman, joined a nascent effort to bring an innovative therapy called conductive education to the area.

In October 1998, a week before the new organization devoted to the treatment was to launch a full-time program, LeVant died of a rare complication as she went into labor with their second son. The baby died shortly after being born.

Gilman and the other parents persevered with the effort, and in the last year, the Arlington-based Cerebral Palsy Ability Center has thrived.

The nonprofit group has a budget of nearly $100,000 and last spring was able to hire its first executive director and a therapist. The center has provided services to 31 children through programs for toddlers and kindergartners and a summer camp for ages 4 to 14.

Conductive education is an intensive rehabilitation for children with motor difficulties such as cerebral palsy. It was developed in Hungary and integrates physical, occupational and speech therapy in a classroom environment, using music and singing, among other techniques, to engage the child. The goal is to help the child live as independently as possible.

Sessions are 5 1/2 hours a day, five days a week for five weeks. LeVant was intrigued because Jonah seemed to respond well to the therapy. The boy, now 5, is still enrolled, said Judy McClimans, the center's executive director.

For the coming year, McClimans's goals include seeking foundation support to supplement the budget, which now relies on individual donations and tuition paid by parents. She also is working on getting the health insurance industry to recognize conductive education for coverage.

The memory of LeVant's energy and optimism still pervades the effort. "We miss her greatly," the center's Internet Web site says. A scholarship in LeVant's name helps make the therapy available to low-income families.

-- David Montgomery

Security Measure Hits School Volunteers

A policy announced this fall requiring fingerprinting of all classroom volunteers in D.C. schools, including parents, encountered resistance from many parents and educators who said they feared it would intimidate volunteers and discourage participation.

So School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman decided to delay implementation of the policy, reexamine it and implement a revised version next year.

But the word didn't spread to everyone, and some parents and principals said last week that they were unaware of the delay.

One result is that the misunderstanding appears to have borne out the critics' apprehensions.

Although the policy has not been enforced by school administrators, some volunteers at schools across the city have stopped tutoring and performing other services they had been providing, according to teachers and parents.

And even though it is not required, at least one school, Miner Elementary in Northeast Washington, is asking all parent volunteers to go to the police station for clearance.

Late last month, Ackerman told a group of teachers that school system lawyers are working with private lawyers to revise the policy, which also requires organizations providing volunteer services to take out millions of dollars in liability insurance.

"That initiative was never intended to hurt children," the superintendent said. "It was done to protect children."

-- Valerie Strauss