Special Education

Decades-Old Suit Over Special Education Services in Baltimore Comes to a Close

By Nirvi Shah — September 20, 2012 2 min read
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A nearly 30-year-old lawsuit over special education services in Baltimore has finally been settled.

Vaughn G., et al., v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, was filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center as a way to address delayed evaluations for students with disabilities, a violation of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

The 84,000-student district agreed, in 1984, to find ways to eliminate the delays in evaluation and improve special education overall. But for years, the district failed to meet any of the deadlines agreed to in the original consent decree. Several additional agreements between the district and the lawyers representing students with disabilities attempted to resolve the deep-rooted problems, with little success.

But in March 2010, Baltimore entered into a settlement agreement in the lawsuit, which the district called a probationary period. The city had to continue providing special-needs students with services, give them support in obtaining a regular education, and work to reduce the numbers that are suspended each year during that time. “The probationary period is now over,” the district said in a written statement today. The case “is officially closed.”

The end of the case marks a difficult time in the district’s history, school board chairman Neil Duke said the statement. “Difficult, because nearly 30 years of litigation has meant facing some difficult truths about how we failed our kids, not to mention the administrative and financial burden that long-term litigation places on a school district. And important, because the litigation has made us better at what we do—especially for our students with disabilities who, for too long, were denied the educational supports and services they deserved.”

Federal litigation over the district’s failure to meet the needs of students with disabilities—who make up 15 percent of the district’s students—began in 1984. Another consent decree in 2000 laid out Baltimore’s obligations to end the case. The district’s work toward meeting those obligations led to the March 2010 settlement.

As for Vaughn Garris, whose name the lawsuit bears, things have not turned out so well. In 2007, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his neighbor.

In an interview with Baltimore Sun, he said he didn’t know if the suit has helped students with disabilities in Baltimore.

“I don’t know if the lawsuit helped anyone,” he told the newspaper. “It didn’t help me. Look where I am.”

But a review of the district by the newspaper concluded that it had.

The Sun found that the lawsuit has helped the school system to improve, and in turn do better by thousands of students who two decades ago wouldn't have had a chance of being successful in the classroom. But there are still many students who continue to fall through the cracks, The Sun's investigation found. Sandra Spears, who heads the CityWide Special Education Advocacy Project, echoed the newspaper's findings. "All things must come to an end," she said. "But monitoring must continue. We must always be watching."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.