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Law Seen Posing Particular Challenge to Private Schools

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Faced with a law that is far from black and white, most private schools are exploring the gray territory of the Americans With Disabilities Act, balancing their desire to comply against the financial burden of doing so.

The 1990 federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities poses a particular challenge to private schools, some of which were exempt from previous laws protecting the disabled.

Most private school educators say their commitment to accommodate students or employees who are disabled preceded the law. Nonetheless, many are starting from scratch as they renovate buildings to make them more accessible and fine-tune their admissions and hiring policies to avoid legal challenges.

Among private schools, "there has been an awful lot of agitation about [the A.D.A.]," said John H. Mason, a labor lawyer who advises Boston-area schools.

Although few claims against private schools have reached the courts, Mr. Mason anticipates a string of lawsuits related to disability access in the future.

"There's nothing more emotional or more important than education," he said, "and I think that families quite rightly want to test the limits of the requirement."

Aiming for Compliance

So far, Mr. Mason said, many of the A.D.A.-related complaints have followed the suspension or expulsion of a student for disruptive behavior. Parents in some instances have questioned the school's action, claiming their child's behavior was caused by a learning disability.

Unlike Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which did not apply to schools that do not take federal funds, the A.D.A. is binding for all schools, public or private.

Only religiously affiliated schools are exempt from any part of the law. They do not have to comply with the "public accommodations" provision, which bars discrimination against people with disabilities in any service provided to the public, including education, transpor-tation, and the use of facilities.

Whether religiously affiliated or not, most private schools say they are trying to meet the law's requirements.

Exactly what compliance means, however, is the big question for many schools.

For the Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., it meant completely rehabilitating one century-old building, installing elevators at a cost of $60,000, adding lifts and ramps throughout the campus, and starting a fund-raising campaign for modifications to other buildings.

Cornelius N. Bakker, the business manager of the 595-student middle and high school, said upgrading the main classroom building would cost $180,000.

Renovating "multi-story old buildings is a real challenge not only architecturally but financially," Mr. Bakker said. "But we're personally committed."

As for accommodating students with learning disabilities, many private schools say they have had few opportunities to do so. Students with learning disabilities sometimes get weeded out in the admissions process, which is not considered discriminatory if all students are evaluated in the same way.

"The question is whether the student can handle the academic work, and that's the only issue," Mr. Bakker said. In some instances, he added, special-needs students may be given extra time to take exams.

Similarly, the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, Wash., gave a hearing-impaired student permission to copy classmates' notes, said Virginia Lane, an assistant to the business manager. Schools "basically are using their common sense."

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