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Court Set To Weigh Spec.-Ed. Private-Placement Case

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TIMMONSVILLE, S.C.--Elaine Carter knew something was wrong when her daughter Shannon altered a bad report card during her first year of high school.

"I was just shocked by this behavior,'' Ms. Carter says as she sips tea in the family's comfortable ranch-style home in rural northeastern South Carolina.

Shannon Carter recalls not being able to read or keep up with her schoolwork. The results, she says, were poor grades, low self-esteem, and depression.

"I wasn't happy with myself,'' says Shannon, who attended Timmonsville High School here during the 1984-85 school year.

The Carter family soon learned the source of Shannon's difficulties: Tests showed she had a learning disability that included developmental dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.

The Carters began working with officials of Florence County School District 4 on a plan for helping Shannon, but relations soon grew sour. Such conflicts between parents and school officials over the best way to educate children with disabilities are common.

The dispute over Shannon Carter's education, however, escalated into a federal lawsuit, and the case has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court hears arguments this week in Florence County School District 4 v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523).

The legal question the case presents is narrow, but potentially important to school districts and parents: whether parents who place a disabled child in a private school following such a conflict with their district are entitled to reimbursement for tuition and other expenses if the private school does not meet state educational standards or is not on a state-approved list.

Emory and Elaine Carter eventually removed their daughter from the Florence County district and enrolled her in Trident Academy, an expensive private school for learning-disabled children more than 100 miles from their home. They contend the school district failed to provide their daughter the "free, appropriate education'' guaranteed under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Two lower federal courts have agreed, and the school district has been ordered to reimburse the Carters for the tuition and other expenses of Shannon's private instruction.

Motives Questioned

School officials here maintain that they tried to work with the Carters on an appropriate education plan for Shannon, but that the parents seemed intent on removing her from the public school.

"I really don't think the parents wanted the child in our schools, much less in our special-education classes,'' said Avery Nelson, who was the principal of Timmonsville High School when Shannon attended there.

The district suggested in its initial briefs to the Supreme Court that the Carters wanted to remove Shannon from Timmonsville High in part because of the school's racial makeup: Shannon is white and the school is about 75 percent black. But the district did not press that issue in its final briefs, and the Carters vehemently deny that race played any part in the episode.

Mr. Carter pointed out that he could have afforded to keep his daughter in a local private school instead of switching her back to the public schools in the 7th grade. Mr. Carter said he wanted to send Shannon to the same schools he had attended growing up near Timmonsville.

The Florence County case, as the only education-related matter the Supreme Court has agreed to hear so far in its new term, has attracted a great deal of attention from education groups.

National Groups Watching

The Court has set the landscape for the private-placement issue in two key cases. In a 1981 case, Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the Court held that the "free, appropriate'' education guaranteed under the federal special-education law requires personalized instruction for a disabled child with support services and an individualized education plan, or I.E.P., that is designed to provide the child with educational benefits.

In a 1985 case, Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education, the Court ruled that parents involved in a dispute with school officials over their child's I.E.P. may "unilaterally'' place the child in a private special-education school. The parents are entitled to reimbursement if the courts ultimately determine that the public school's plan for the child was inappropriate and the private school provided an appropriate education.

The Court reasoned that because the review process during such disputes can take months or years, parents would have to either leave their child in the unsatisfactory public school or remove him and pay private school tuition. Thus, the Court granted federal courts the power to award retroactive payments to parents.

As private-placement-reimbursement cases have surged since the Court's 1985 decision, education and state-government groups have been looking for a case in which they could express to the High Court their belief that such placements are a drain on public funds.

"Nowhere has the growing state and local special-education burden been more onerous than in the area of private-school placements,'' says a friend-of-the-court brief written by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. of Maryland on behalf of his state and 16 others.

A brief filed by the National School Boards Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education argues that "school districts should not be forced to spend public funds on private schools that do not meet state educational standards.''

A Nine-Year Battle

At the Carter home just outside Timmonsville, Emory Carter keeps boxes full of letters and documents generated during the family's nine-year dispute with the school district.

The Carters say Shannon always struck them as a bright child, so they were puzzled by her poor performance in junior and senior high school. She was tested by district officials while in the 7th grade, but the district concluded that she did not have a learning disability.

But after the grade-altering incident early in the 9th grade, "things really came to a climax,'' said Elaine Carter, a nursing director for a long-term-care facility.

After consulting several child psychologists and other private experts, the Carters again requested that Shannon be tested for a learning disability. This time, the school district's expert agreed, noting that the student had a reading level somewhere between the 4th and 7th grades.

The Carters and the district then began discussions to develop an individualized education plan, the central element of the federal special-education law.

The district suggested that Shannon spend at least part of each day in a "resource room'' at Timmonsville High. The Carters objected. They did not want theirdaughter in a classroom that included mentally retarded students and students with emotional problems.

"I feel the program they offered Shannon really wasn't catered to her and her emotional state,'' Ms. Carter said. "They were just trying to place her in something they already had.''

The Carters and the district eventually signed an I.E.P. that called for Shannon to receive three periods a week of "itinerant'' aid. The plan called for her to achieve four months' progress in reading over the next year.

The Carters said they were never satisfied with the education plan, even though they signed it.

"The I.E.P. was a failure from the beginning,'' contended Mr. Carter, a regional marketing manager for a wire-products company.

Over the summer of 1985, the Carters essentially gave up on the Florence County schools and began looking for private institutions that could serve Shannon, eventually selecting Trident Academy.

"We just didn't know where to go or what to do,'' Ms. Carter said. "We were just kind of grasping.''

'Didn't Give Us a Chance'

School officials in District 4, which serves about 1,300 students from Timmonsville and a largely rural section of Florence County, paint a different picture of events.

They portray the Carters as overly demanding parents whose expectations of success for Shannon contributed to the pressures on the student. Once Shannon's learning disability was diagnosed, officials say, the Carters seemed to consider the district ill-equipped to deal with it.

"They really didn't give us a chance to work with her,'' said Mr. Nelson, the former principal of Timmonsville High who is now the district's director of pupil services. "We don't feel like we failed her.''

The Carters say things changed dramatically for Shannon once she entered Trident Academy, which is located in Mount Pleasant, S.C., just outside the historic harbor city of Charleston.

"Everything was more one-on-one,'' said Shannon Carter, who will turn 24 later this month and now works as a cosmetologist and studies at a technical college. "I felt more comfortable asking questions.''

Carly David, one of her teachers at the school, said that, when Shannon arrived at Trident, "her self-esteem was just dragging on the floor. She was basically illiterate. But she and her parents knew she could learn.''

Shannon became a cheerleader and participated in other extracurricular activities at Trident, and her academic performance improved greatly. She graduated in 1988.

Trident is the only private school in the state dedicated to serving learning-disabled students, said Myron C. Harrington, Jr., the headmaster.

"These kids are bright kids,'' he said. "To be dyslexic does not mean you are stupid.''

Conflicting Appellate Rulings

Trident serves an average of about 100 pupils on its 20-acre campus. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the South Carolina Independent School Association.

Tuition when Shannon attended Trident ranged from $6,992 her first year to $8,140 her senior year. Tuition for high school students this year is about $12,000.

While Shannon studied at Trident, her parents pressed their case to have the school district pay for her education, first through a due-process review, which they lost, and then by filing a federal suit.

In 1991, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck of Florence, S.C., ruled that the school district had failed to provide Shannon a free, appropriate education because her I.E.P. was inadequate. He found that Trident Academy "provided Shannon an excellent education in substantial compliance with all the substantive requirements'' of the special-education law.

The judge ordered the district to reimburse the Carters for more than $35,000 in tuition and boarding fees at Trident, plus some travel expenses and interest.

His opinion was affirmed in 1991 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.

That may have been the end of the case if the Fourth Circuit's ruling had not conflicted with a ruling in another private-placement case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In a 1989 case, the Second Circuit held that parents could not be reimbursed for a unilateral private-school placement if they put their child in a school that was not approved by state officials.

The Supreme Court apparently granted review of the Florence County case to resolve the conflict between the federal appeals courts.

Meeting State Standards

Florence County School District 4 argues that it should not have to reimburse the Carters because Trident Academy did not meet all the state standards for private-school placements under the special-education law. For example, the school employed a few teachers who were not certified in special education, and it did not establish formal I.E.P.'s for its students.

Lawyers for the Carters respond that South Carolina does not maintain a list of state-approved private special-education schools and that Trident has never been "disapproved.'' A few South Carolina districts have even placed students at the academy in the past, they say.

Mr. Harrington of Trident Academy pointed out that most of its students are placed there by tuition-paying parents, not by school districts. He said the school has little incentive to strictly comply with the myriad federal and state special-education regulations imposed on districts and on private schools that frequently receive district placements.

It will be up to the High Court to decide whether parents making a private placement for their child should have to worry about whether their chosen school meets state standards if they hope to be reimbursed.

Both the school district and the Carters are eager to put the case to rest.

T. Paul Vivian, the superintendent of District 4, notes that, even if the district loses, the reimbursement expenses will be paid by a state insurance reserve fund.

"We pay the premiums, of course, and this kind of thing can affect those,'' he added.

Emory Carter says he never wanted the case to end up as "one family against the U.S. educational system.''

"But the end result,'' he said, "is we have a daughter who is happy.''

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