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Court Dennies Sect's Plea for Separate Special-Ed. Program

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New York State's highest court has ruled that a school district does not have to provide separate special-education services for handicapped private-school children who refuse on religious grounds to mix with public-school pupils.

In a unanimous ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals held last month that the Monroe-Woodbury school district was not required under state law to provide a separate facility for handicapped children from the Orthodox Jewish village of Kiryas Joel.

The residents of the village belong to the Satmar Hasidim sect, whose beliefs include remaining separate from nonmembers. Children in the village attend religious schools that are segregated by sex.

Under pressure from the sect to provide a separate special-education program, the district in 1985 asked for a declaratory judgment of its responsibility under state and federal law.

The district argued that state law only required districts to provide services to non-public schoolchildren within the regular special-education program. District officials also contended that providing a separate facility would risk excessive state entanglement with religion. Moreover, they said, even a "neutral site'' for special-education services could never be free of religious influences.

The Jewish parents countered that their children had suffered fear and trauma in leaving their community to attend the public-school programs.

A state district court ruled in favor of the parents last year, ordering the district to establish a program in Kiryas Joel. A state appellate court overturned that ruling in January. In a sweeping decision, it declared that a separate program would violate state and federal education laws and the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

But the state's top court, in a decision written by Judge Judith Kaye, skirted the constitutional questions and narrowed the case to state education law. The court declined to rule on the constitutionality of a neutral site, noting that neither side had presented such a proposal.

Judge Kaye agreed with the district's contention that services need only be provided within the public schools. She noted, however, that such services are usually individualized, and can range from existing special-education classes to home-education programs or enrollment in schools for the severely handicapped.

"It may well be that certain of the services in controversy could be furnished to defendants at neutral sites if plaintiff determined to do so,'' the judge wrote in a footnote to the decision. "This action poses only the abstract question whether services must be furnished in public schools or must be furnished separately.''

Daniel D. Alexander, the Monroe-Woodbury superintendent of schools, said that the district did not plan to modify its special-education program to meet the objections of the Kiryas Joel community.

"We still have an open invitation to the Hasidic community to have their children placed in the same programs as public-school children,'' he said.

The parents have not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. --KG

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