The Kirchner family of Clinton provides a textbook example of the way the new "Education for All Handicapped Children Act" is supposed to work.
Their youngest son, who is 12, had been severely retarded since uneplained seizures struck him at the age of 16 months. He has been unable to concentrate on one task for any length of time, or to sit still for more than a few seconds.
Although their son was enrolled since the age of 4 at a facility funded by Prince George's County, the Kirchners became dissatisfied with the minimal help he was given. Through their owb efforts and pure luck, they learned about the legal rights parents have under the new law and about the legal clinics established to give mucle to the law. They won for their son, Mark, the kind of training they knew he needed.
"Recently we all went to atrack meet to watch our other son karl, 15, run," said Joan Krchner. "It was the first time Mark had gone anywhere with us. We were all together, as a family."
Like millions of other families with handicapped children, the Kirchners know that the gap between the law's promise and actual help can be wide and frustrating.
"Everytime they told us they couldn't do something I just said 'horsefeathers,'" Joan Krichner recalled.
"Two years ago we decided the day care center was not the place for him. He wasn't learning anything, he was stagnating. Mark lives at home with us and we knew he could do more," she said.
The Kirchners requested that Mark be transferred fron the day care center to one of the county's special education centers near their home, but the request was denied.
"First they said he couldn't benefit and then they said he was out of the district. Well he was, but only by one block - and every day I saw the bus drive by our house carrying other over there," said Charles Kirchner, a D.C. police officer.
In late 1976 Charles Kirchner was called for jury duty and, while waiting at the county courthouse in Upper marboro, he bumped into an attorney he knew.
The attorney told me to contact the Developmental Disabilities Law Center in Baltimore," Kirchner said. A few weeks later the Kirchners went to Baltimore and met with attorney Susan Leviton. The center and others like it were established in 1975 to ensure that communities comply with the federal law.
Leviton agreed to represent Mark Kirchner. She read his evalvuations, consulted county officials and James E. Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the Learning Disabilities Center in Climton, who knew Mark.
"One of Mark's behaviors was that he lay on the floor, kicking and screaming," Lewis said, But he was doing this in imitation of others in his class, not on his own. He had powers of imitation which had never been developed."
Meanwhile Leviton and the Kirchners were exhausting their administrative appeals, as the new law required. Then. in October 1977 the family droce to Hyattsville State Board of Education.
In one of the first such actions. the state ruled that Mark must be moved from the day care center to the special education center, where he could receive better training.
"The changes have just been incredible," said Lewis. "he can sit still longer, concentrate on tasks, he is becoming socialized."
Mark's mother said, "He needs this training so that someday he can do simple tasks in a job situation. It's wonderful for him and for us that we can all be together now. Parents have got to understand that there's hope," she said.