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P.G. delegate declares war on county school system

August 06, 1997

P.G. delegate declares war on county school system

A week ago today, in a stifling hot gymnasium in the Martin Luther King Center on Hagerstown's North Street, Maryland state Del. Joanne Benson, D-Prince Georges, declared war on the Washington County school system.

Speaking to a group of about 40 parents and students, Benson said, among other things, that the school board members' primary purpose for serving is to ensure their own children's success.

The agenda of the school board and the county commissioners "is for a special few," Benson said. The P.G. delegate also endorsed one grandparent's call for the wholesale replacement of the members of the county board. She also brought in Dwight Sullivan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, to discuss filing a class-action suit on behalf of parents of local school children who have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and ADHD - a condition that couples hyperactivity with an inability to concentrate.

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Benson says she's angry because it took a long time for her nephew in Hagerstown to be diagnosed with ADD. And then she said that, just as he was beginning to make progress, two teachers helping him - Austin Gisriel and Kurt Britner - were being transferred out of North Hagerstown High for reasons that are the subject of a different lawsuit.

Benson was refreshingly candid with the crowd, telling them that if the transfer had been reversed as she requested at a May 27 school board meeting, she wouldn't have pursued the matter any further.

Perhaps their senses were dulled by the heat (I know mine were) or maybe they were just loathe to criticize the one person who seemed to be taking their concerns seriously, but nobody asked her "What would have happened to us then?"

Judging by their stories, these were the parents of children who'd had a tough time, parents who'd battled the system and lost, at least from their point of view. Sometimes, they said, it was because administrators treated ADD children as behavior problems instead of kids in need of special treatment. In some cases, their kids had been shuffled off to the Alernative School or Brook Lane Psychiatric Center before a correct diagnosis was made.

Other former students described the experience of being humiliated for behavior they couldn't control. In one case, a young man described being placed in an appliance carton that the teacher labeled his "office." Another, who said he now attends James Madison University, recalled being told by a counselor that he wasn't really college material.

Nobody in the group opposed the idea of a lawsuit to force the school system provide ADD students with an "appropriate" education, though one parent asked Benson what she hoped to gain by suing.

"A civil lawsuit will serve notice to Washington County schools that what they have been doing is not acceptable. They can also find resources to do what has to be done. They need to find the financial resources to pay teachers, because putting children with Attention Deficit Disorder in Brook Lane is wrong," she said.

To her credit, Benson, who is African-American, did not claim that school officials were making race-based decisions. Instead, she said, the discrimination here is "socio-economic." Indeed, many of the parents attending her meeting, and some of the students, were white.

I'll be the first to admit that the service you get from any government agency depends in part on how you approach the authorities, and who you are. Go through the steps calmy and politely, reserving your tirades and the threat of legal action until they're needed, and you'll probably succeed. Go in angry, with no connections and no dough to hire a lawyer and you may get only what the agency wants to give you.

Two mistakes were made last Thursday, one by Benson and one by the school board. Tying an attempt to get additional help for ADD and ADHD students to this teacher-transfer dispute confuses the issue. And worse, it raises the possibility that no progress can be made until both suits are settled. The Baltimore school funding suit, cited favorably last Thursday, took years to resolve.

But on the other side, someone from the elected school board should have been there to listen to these people in distress and to try to find a way for the system to relieve their pain.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail. Del. Benson and her supporters have been invited to submit their own column on this issue.

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