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Suit Spurs Private School To Return Federal Aid

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Leaders in the private school community are warning schools to think twice about accepting federal support in the wake of a discrimination suit against an Episcopal school in Virginia.

St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Va., last month dropped out of the federal school-lunch program rather than readmit a boy with learning problems. The school received roughly $3,200 from the U.S. Agriculture Department during the past school year.

The school also said it will return thousands of dollars worth of books, audio-visual equipment, and instructional materials provided by the Alexandria public schools using U.S. Education Department money. The city has not totaled the value of the equipment given the school, but St. Stephen's requested $8,700 worth of material for the 1994-95 school year, according to city officials.

Receiving federal aid makes schools subject to federal antidiscrimination laws.

St. Stephen's is one of five schools owned and operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Two other diocesan schools joined St. Stephen's in canceling their participation in the school-lunch program, and none of the schools now receives federal financial assistance, according to court documents filed by the diocese.

Applying the Law

Federal officials and private school representatives say they believe St. Stephen's is the first private school to return federal funds.

The St. Stephen's lawsuit, which goes to trial in U.S. District Court on Sept. 8, hinges on the application of discrimination laws to the school's refusal to re-enroll a 6-year-old kindergarten student.

The school knew of the boy's learning problems--weak fine motor skills make his handwriting shaky, and he has difficulty focusing on tasks--and made special provisions, according to the school's court filings.

The child's teacher provided "an inordinate amount of individual, one-on-one attention'' to help him complete assignments and function in classes, the records say. Also, two staff members who usually do not work with kindergarten students--a language-arts specialist and a counselor--met frequently with the boy.

"The school wanted to accommodate this child and made a reasonable effort,'' said David E. Constine, a lawyer representing St. Stephen's.

But the school eventually concluded that it was not equipped to handle the boy and decided not to admit him for 1st grade, Mr. Constine said.

The boy's parents, in filing the discrimination lawsuit on his behalf, contend that the school violated the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act. That law prohibits discrimination against the disabled in programs receiving federal money.

The parents argue in court papers that their son's learning disabilities and his special needs are minimal. While the boy shows signs of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, he has an I.Q. of 131 and reads on a 2nd-grade level, according to an evaluation ordered by his parents.

The parents throughout the year offered to provide help for the child and his teachers, according to their lawyer, Douglas Huff. They offered to hire outside consultants and to buy a lap-top computer for the boy to complete assignments.

"There is no academic reason why he couldn't succeed at St. Stephen's,'' Mr. Huff said. "This was discrimination based solely on the school's lack of willingness to accommodate him.''

The parents are seeking the boy's reinstatement in the school and $50,000 in damages.

Private School Test Case

The suit has jangled the nerves of private school educators already uneasy about what they see as growing government encroachments on their independence.

The National Association of Episcopal Schools issued a statement citing increasing government and court opposition to "true independence for nonpublic schools [that] should be a warning to schools seeking government financial support.''

Private schools have always been leery of participation in the more than a dozen federal programs available to them. An informal National Association of Independent Schools survey of 141 of its more than 930 member schools found that two-thirds do not accept federal support.

"They feel it may threaten their independence,'' said Michelle L. Doyle, the director of the U.S. Education Department's office of private education.

The suit may sharpen suspicions of these programs. Whether other schools will follow St. Stephen's lead and return their federal aid is not clear, said Peter D. Relic, the president of the N.A.I.S.

But he pointed to the St. Stephen's case as a test of whether federal and state laws can strip private schools of what defines their independence: the right to admit children by their own standards.

"This has to all play out,'' Mr. Relic said.

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