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'Unreasonable Delay' Cited In Chicago Spec.-Ed. Case

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Chicago's special-education program violates federal anti-discrimination laws by subjecting thousands of the district's handicapped students to "unreasonable delay" in the evaluation of their condition and the delivery of services, an administrative-law judge has ruled.

The ruling Aug. 12 was the first step in formal enforcement proceedings brought by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights. The process could ultimately lead to a loss of some $117 million in annual federal funding for the district.

"If Chicago fails to come forward with an acceptable plan, the department will proceed with steps to terminate federal financial assistance," said Legree S. Daniels, assistant secretary for civil rights.

The ocr sought the ruling only after attempts to reach a voluntary agreement with the district had failed, department officials said.

Because the ruling was the first stage of a two-part decree, it cannot yet be appealed, said Gary Curran, a spokesman for the ocr Only after issuance of the second part, which will address a remedy, can the appeals process go forward.

The federal action places new pressures on the Chicago Board of Education to reform its special-education program, which has also been under fire from state officials and local advocacy groups.

Promise 'Like Morning Mist'

In his 49-page opinion, U.S. Administrative-Law Judge Bernard Ries wrote that "it appears that the board devoted neither sufficient energy, interest, nor funds to the evaluation of handicapped children, despite considerable prodding."

He chastised the board for "engaging in confession and avoidance." In one instance, he said, a promise by Superintendent of Schools Manford Byrd Jr. to correct the problems "came and went like morning mist."

Board officials have repeatedly blamed budget and staffing shortfalls for the delays in evaluating and placing special-education students.

"There has been no hesitation on the part of the board to cooperate with state or federal agencies" throughout the course of their investigations, Robert Saigh, a spokesman for the board, said last week.

The board is facing, in addition to the federal action, two separate state investigations into its special-education practices.

The first and most comprehensive action is "now before a hearing officer," according to Ed Sontag, assistant superintendent in charge of the state's special-education department.

The Chicago board was informed in two separate 1987 findings that delays in evaluating, placing, and reevaluating handicapped students violated state laws, Mr. Sontag added.

"Both parties have agreed to settlement discussions," he said.

In the second action, the Illinois Board of Education ruled last month that the district's summer-school programs for special-education students were not in compliance with state regulations.

"Clearly, the administrative procedures and organizational structure of the Chicago Public Schools," Mr. Sontag wrote in an Aug. 23 letter to Mr. Byrd, "has resulted in the denial of extended-school-year services for eligible handicapped youth."

The letter noted, for instance, that a 75 percent reduction in the summer transportation budget had resulted in bus rides for students that commonly exceeded one hour, as well as in frequent late arrivals and missed classes.

The school board was ordered to take corrective action or face the initiation of enforcement procedures.

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