The D.C. Board of Education, the school superintendent, the mayor and the director of the Department of Human Services were held in contempt of court yesterday for deliberately ignoring a federal judge's eight-year-old mandate to give the city's handicapped children a free public education.
U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn said that District officials and agencies in charge of special education for about 7,000 children "have shown an amazing lack of concern and an indifference" toward such youngsters, especially in cases where a child needs placement in a residential care program.
Not only did those agencies violate a landmark decision handed down by the late Judge Joseph C. Waddy in 1972 but "they have presented no real defense for their actions," Penn said in an eight-page decision.
Penn's action yesterday was the second time that city officials have been held in contempt of Waddy's ruling. The Waddy decree found that handicapped and emotionally disturbed children here have the same constitutional right to a public education as other children -- no matter what the cost or the extent of the child's disabilities.
In 1975, Waddy himself found that obligation had not been met, and he appointed a special court officer to come up with a way to enforce the court ruling.
Although such a plan was developed and approved by the court in 1978, parents of those children continued to complain that needed special education services were not available. It was a litany of those complaints, heard in evidence during lengthy hearings in Penn's courtroom earlier this year, that led to a second contempt finding yesterday.
Penn did not immediately impose any sanctions against the city officials and agencies for violation of the order.
Instead, he directed them to file a "complete and detailed report" by July 7 on efforts to comply with Waddy's order.
Penn wrote that the parents, represented by lawyers from the Mental Health Law Project, had demonstrated "beyond a reasonable doubt" that city officials and agencies had violated Waddy's order.
Attorney Robert Plotkin, who has represented parents and children in the case for eight years said that Penn's finding yesterday "reasserts the court's authority to enforce its own decree and clearly demonstrates that the District of Columbia is not meeting its obligations."
The decision, Plotkin said, gives parents fresh leverage to use with school officials when they seek special education for their children. But, Plotkin said, he and his clients were concerned that the city might simply maintain what Penn found to be a pattern of noncompliance.
"I hope not. I hope the law means more than that . . . But I'm worried that it's a hollow victory," Plotkin said.
D.C. School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed said his agency will comply with Penn's order, but he warned that the resulting increased cost -- especially for residential care "means other programs will suffer."
Mayor Marion Barry said in a prepared statement that he and the school board "are committed to finding a solution which will best serve the needs of our residents."
Specifically, Penn found that city officials had not presented a "valid excuse" for their failure to meet time limits set by Waddy for placement of children in need of special education.
Waddy's order gave school officials 50 days to diagnose and evaluate the problems of children in need of special education, and then place them in appropriate programs within the school system or provide tuition grants for their treatment elsewhere.
School officials have continually described the 50-day deadline as "unrealistic," Penn noted. Yet instead of asking the court for a modification of that rule, "they chose to ignore the court's orders," Penn said. The only time a request was made to the court for additional time, he noted, was after the parents sought the most recent contempt-of-court order.
In his opinion, Penn said that the earlier court order was intended to provide residential placement for children whose needs could not be met in a classroom setting. But, Penn said, school officials have "deliberately attempted to discourage" consideration of residential placement in "all but a few cases."
Penn said that on some occasions, officials have "played one [city] agency off against the other to avoid meeting their responsibility in that regard."
School officials have been in a constant squabble with the Department of Human Services about which agency has the financial responsibility for special education children. Superintendent Reed said in a telephone interview yesterday that Human Services is "ripping off the school system" by refusing to come up with its share of those costs.
"They were part of the original Waddy decree; they just refused to pay it," Reed said. Reed said the school board is responsible for educational costs for those children, but that DHS should pat for costs that come under social services, such as room and board at residential facilities. Those costs sometimes run as high as $70,000 a year.
"The money is fantastic," Reed said. "We're not a social agency and DHS is." James Buford, the director of the Department of Human Services, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Reed said the school system spent $23 million on special education programs in the 1979 school year.
Doris Woodson, the school system's assistant superintendent for special education services, said yesterday that a comprehensive plan designed to spell out each agency's special education obligations is now being studied by the mayor and the school board.