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Parents, teachers support Del. Benson's claim

July 30, 1997

By VANDANA SINHA

Staff Writer

Maryland Del. Joanne C. Benson said her office has been inundated with calls supporting her claim that some Washington County Board of Education administrators encourage students to drop out of school.

A number of callers said their children, who suffer from learning disabilities, disorders or other emotional problems, have been denied the help they need, labeled as troublemakers and eventually forced out of the school system.

"If children don't meet the school norms, they are encouraged to fail. Some of the things I've heard from these people are so awful," said Benson, D-Prince George's, and a Hagerstown native.

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Benson, at a July 16 community meeting, said she planned to file a civil lawsuit against the local Board of Education for what she called student neglect.

Benson, who has a nephew with attention deficit disorder in the school system, first spoke out on the issue during a May 27 school board meeting.

Area parents, teachers and former students, contacted by telephone since the July 16 meeting, said they had been ignored by administrators, county officials and the school board.

Benson has invited families, teachers and Dwight Sullivan, a staff attorney with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, to attend a follow-up meeting today at 7 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Center on North Street.

School board President B. Marie Byers said she cannot recall receiving any complaints directly from parents concerning the needs of their children, and those who say they consulted her are "incorrect."

Other school board officials and teachers said that the school system is set up to avoid student neglect, not cause it.

Martha Roulette, director of student services, said more than $12 million is spent on expanded services, programs and staffing to serve the 2,800 special education students who participate in individualized education programs tailored to meet their needs.

Although she said the county might need more than the 125 special education teachers it employs, she said concerned parents should schedule admission review dismissal committee meetings with her to discuss their children's education.

Benson's claim angered Joe Millward, school board supervisor of pupil personnel and guidance, who said he couldn't understand why no one had informed him of any inept or abusive teachers.

"It paints us as villains who nail certain children. If there are people in our system who do that, they need to get a job somewhere else. We don't want them here," Millward said.

Dorothy Waldron, a Hagerstown parent, said that in the past two years, her daughter received only half the special education services listed under her individualized education program.

"If they don't address the needs of children in elementary school, then I can understand why they aren't making it in high school," said Waldron, who said she has appealed to the school board and plans to seek an administrative hearing this fall.

Improving the school system's student services requires educated parents, efficient monitoring programs and organization, said Debbie Pryor, one of eight parent educators with Parents Place, the only children's advocacy group in Maryland.

"I'm finding that a child is not necessarily going to get the services it needs just because it's on a piece of paper, especially if the parent isn't aware of the everyday programming," said Pryor, who works out of Williamsport and hears about 15 special education complaints a month, mostly from Washington County.

She encourages parents to file formal written complaints with the school board, the Maryland Disability Law Center or the Special Education Division of the Maryland Department of Education if they encounter problems.

None of the approximately 42 formal written complaints logged by the state Department of Education division in fiscal year 1997 was from Washington County, said Jerry White, division branch chief of program administration and support services.

He said the state department recorded four requests for mediation before an impartial administrative law judge, one due process hearing that was settled in favor of the school board. Another due process hearing is pending.

Some said they were not surprised by Benson's allegations that children were being mainstreamed and ignored.

"There would be kids who would get into problems and be encouraged not to continue in the educational system," said Washington County Commissioner Ronald Bowers, who said he heard many complaints in the last six years.

Several special education teachers, parents and former students who said certain students were discouraged from staying in school long enough to graduate refused to give their names, saying they feared reprisal from other teachers and administrators.

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