A 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, who crawled to the toilet at his D.C. elementary school for 1 1/2 years because he couldn't get his wheelchair through the door, must be provided with an accessible bathroom by early November, a federal judge has ordered.
For 18 months, until his attorney filed suit against the school system last March, Freddy Ramirez frequently crawled across the floor on his hands and knees to use the toilet. One boys' bathroom and one girls' bathroom each have an aide to assist physically disabled students, but Freddy said he often didn't want to be carried to the toilet -- or didn't have enough time to get to that bathroom. When that happened, he said he had to crawl because he couldn't maneuver his wheelchair over the bump in the restroom doorway.
"It was very hard for me," Freddy said. "I had to leave the wheelchair outside, crawl to the bathroom, then crawl back to the wheelchair. . . . Sometimes kids wouldn't flush the toilet and I would have to do it. So that made me feel bad. And sometimes it was slippery and I couldn't reach the toilet. And I'd have accidents. Sometimes I even got in trouble for it by the teacher."
Sylvia Patrick, principal at River Terrace Elementary School in Northeast Washington, said she couldn't explain why the child was left to crawl to the bathroom for such a long time before renovations began.
"That is a question you may have to refer to facilities," she said. "Much of the work requires bids, and it goes through that process. As to why it has taken so long, I cannot answer at this time."
The ruling is the latest in a series of legal decisions against the school system from judges who have said officials have violated the rights of many students with physical, emotional or mental disabilities. D.C. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has taken steps recently to revamp the special education program, which handles these children, but the program has been considered dysfunctional for years.
"Defendants have presented this court with no evidence that the bathrooms and hallway doors have been made accessible as is legally required," U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan wrote in his order. "The aides are not an acceptable permanent solution. Freddy and other handicapped students have a right to be able to access the school and its facilities on their own. The District of Columbia has had long enough to remedy this situation."
D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who visited the school last year in his role as head of the panel's education committee, said he saw requisitions the principal had submitted over a long period of time trying to get the problem fixed.
"I talked to some folks in facilities," Chavous said. "At one point they said it was a procurement problem, then a structural problem. My point was that it was inexcusable. This is a facilities screw-up, absolutely."
The new facilities chief, Kifah Jayyousi, would not discuss what happened before he arrived in July. He said that the school system reacted quickly as soon as the court became involved and that work on the bathrooms is about 65 percent complete. Patrick said workers will be on the job every day to ensure that the bathrooms comply with the U.S. Americans With Disabilities Act.
That law mandates that schools with students in wheelchairs have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and hallway doors. But most D.C. school buildings are old and not in compliance, Jayyousi said.
Patrick said that there are now 11 children with wheelchairs in her school, but that none of the others has as hard a time using the bathrooms as Freddy. The boy now uses the bathroom with an aide's help, but said he still has difficulty reaching a newly installed railing and cannot open the bathroom's heavy doors.
"I want to do it by myself," he said.
School officials, including Jayyousi, said that the legal situation is complex and that the school system has tried to meet the needs of special education children at River Terrace.
During an Oct. 6 hearing on the issue before Hogan, Assistant Corporation Counsel Grace Perry-Gatier said the bathroom had been brought into compliance with the federal law by a contractor hired last April. But Hogan said the school system hadn't offered any expert testimony or evidence to prove it was in compliance, and he ruled that the work had to be completed within 20 days of the order, which was issued Thursday.
The city's public school system has had major problems over the years with its aging, crumbling school buildings. Officials, who have said they need to spend millions of dollars making facilities compatible with the Americans With Disabilities Act, have put off most of those efforts to address what they deem more urgent priorities -- leaky roofs, rotting windows, freezing or stifling classrooms.
The city has relatively few students who use wheelchairs in its 146 schools, and those who do have had difficulties, even in buildings supposedly equipped for them. For example, a student who used a wheelchair and who graduated from Roosevelt High School last year said he and his disabled classmates spent months out of regular classes when the elevator there broke down.
In 1995, Freddy Ramirez started attending the Sharpe Health School, a Northwest Washington School for physically impaired children, and his parents purchased a home nearby. But a year later he was transferred to a Sharpe Health satellite program at River Terrace, and he is bused across town every day.
River Terrace was designated a site for the satellite program for about a dozen students with wheelchairs, although its facilities in 1996 were not accessible to wheelchairs. As a result, two lawsuits have been filed against the school system to make the school fully accessible to children with disabilities.
A few months after Freddy entered River Terrace, his mother said she learned that the school had no bathroom facilities that were accessible for mobility-impaired children. The bathroom doors were too narrow to allow the passage of a wheelchair, and the bathrooms themselves were never equipped with the modifications required by federal law.
Patrick sent in requisitions asking that the situation be remedied, but the family's attorney, Myrna Fawcett, said nothing happened until she filed the March 30 suit. A few days later, a construction company, Tito Contractors, was hired to fix the bathrooms.
Perry-Gatier told the court the contractor's work brought the bathroom into compliance. But Fawcett said it did not, citing a bathroom door too heavy for disabled children to open, among other problems.
Eugene Adams, spokesman for the D.C. corporation counsel, said the city would comply with Hogan's order "to the letter." He said he did not know why the school system did not make repairs sooner.