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D.C. Public Schools’ new special education summer programs offer a lesson in fine-print reading.

Theresa Mullen’s 9-year-old adopted daughter, Mary, is not an easy student to educate. She has trouble reading and speaking, and she requires occupational therapy for back trouble and poor finger coordination—all conditions that stem from the fact that Mary’s birth mother was a crack addict, says Mullen.

Mullen and her husband couldn’t find a school in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system that could accommodate Mary. So they moved her to Rockville’s Katherine Thomas School in 1997. Under federal laws that say the school system will pay private-school tuition for any special education student whose needs it cannot meet, DCPS picked up the tab. Katherine Thomas has been ideal for Mary, says Mullen, who says her daughter’s conditions are so severe that she requires year-round schooling. This spring, as she has most years, Mullen planned to enroll Mary in the Extended School Year (ESY) summer program at the school.

Then, in early May, Mullen opened her mailbox to find a letter from DCPS outlining new summer programs for special education students. The school system offered a handful of summer special ed options in the past—or allowed the kids to enroll in regular summer school—but until now never provided anything comprehensive. This year, according to the mailing, DCPS will offer its own ESY programs. And the school system will also set up a “Comp-Ed Academy,” which offers “compensatory services” to make up for education gaps caused by the school system—gaps usually caused by a student’s placement in the wrong school or by the disruption of a handicapped child’s commute to school by DCPS’s notorious special ed transportation problems.

The fine print on the registration form wasn’t so generous. Under the line for a signature, it read: “I further agree that my child’s participation and attendance in the Comp-Ed Academy satisfies any and all outstanding claims, to date, for Compensatory Education.” To Mullen, it seemed to say that signing up for the program meant that she would waive rights to other services from DCPS.

“I looked at [it] and thought, ‘Well, [she’s] just not going to school for the summer,’” recalls Mullen. “I was not going to give up my rights.”

Mullen wasn’t the only one confused. She called her school administrators and her attorney, Elizabeth Jester, who all said they’d received calls from parents infuriated about the forms. Other attorneys had also heard from angry clients. Many of them saw it as a deliberate effort by the school system to defraud the families of their rights to special education services.

“I think [DCPS officials] wanted to slip this in to limit their liability…so that parents would unwittingly sign this and give up their rights,” says Margaret Kohn, another special ed attorney.

The official response from DCPS more or less boils down to one word: “Oops.” DCPS officials told special ed attorneys that the language appeared on the form accidentally and that they had no intention of limiting services. Anne Gay, assistant superintendent for special education, agreed to correct the registration form and send out new letters.

But this measure didn’t do much to reassure Mullen. Although she finally got the corrected letter, she also has received another note saying that the school system would no longer fund Mary’s summer program at Katherine Thomas now that it was offering its own. But the ESY program, by its nature, is intended to build on the lessons and relationships already established at a child’s school—and moving Mary or any other child to a new school for the ESY program could defeat that purpose, says Jester. “These kids aren’t pingpong balls. You can’t put them here and put them there,” she explains.

Mullen says that she and Katherine Thomas officials had decided at a March meeting that Mary should attend the ESY program at the Rockville school. (A Katherine Thomas administrator did not return a call for comment.) A DCPS employee was supposed to attend that meeting, too, but didn’t show. “It’s my stand that they waived their rights because they didn’t show up for it,” says Mullen, who has two other adopted daughters in special education at private schools.

With less than a month before classes are supposed to begin, Mullen says that she knows virtually nothing about the summer programs that DCPS wants her daughter to attend. And her expectations aren’t too high.

“I don’t think very many parents are going to trust them now,” says Mullen. “They don’t give us any solid information to go on, so how can you trust what they’re talking about?”

If a client hadn’t taken an out-of-town trip, says attorney Ronald Drake, he might never have learned of the school system’s latest blunder. When DCPS couldn’t contact Drake’s special education client, a staffer called Drake, hoping to get the attorney’s John Hancock on the registration form. Drake says that he almost fell out of his office chair when he got to the fine print.

“When I saw it, I was astounded anyone would be so overreaching,” says Drake. “I’ve been involved [in special education cases] for 11 years, and I’ve seen a lot of bad things by DCPS. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as wrong and unfair as this.”

Drake filed a complaint with District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman, who presides over two long-standing class-action lawsuits against DCPS for poor special education services. Friedman demanded a response from the school system.

Gay, in turn, submitted an affidavit to the court explaining that the registration form “reflected an error in judgment.” She said that DCPS employees added the waiver language in an effort to resolve outstanding compensatory-education claims stemming from transportation problems last summer and school year.

After parents and their attorneys contacted her office in early May, Gay told the judge, she realized that the form was confusing to parents and agreed to revise it. A few weeks later, DCPS employees sent out a second mailing—only they had deleted the wrong troublesome language, according to her affidavit. So they sent out a third round—fully corrected and through certified mail.

“We never intended that language to—in any way, shape, or form—limit anyone’s rights,” Gay says.

A former principal at Janney Elementary, Gay took charge of the special education division last July. She says that the summer programs, located in 90 schools across the city, will be a boon for special education students. All DCPS special education students—whether they’re being educated at public schools or having DCPS foot their bills at private institutions—are eligible for this year’s programs, says Gay, who expects 3,000 to 3,500 students to take part in them.

“We want to make sure we capture all students,” says Gay. “Our first obligation is to provide services at the neighborhood school.”

But Gay also says that, although DCPS officials would like to accommodate all students at their neighborhood schools, they may have to “cluster” kids with especially special needs. And some students may even remain in their private programs during the summer. Gay says that DCPS officials will meet with the parents of all special education students in the next few weeks to determine which programs are best for which children. “What I’m hoping is we give a quality experience for the kids,” says Gay. “That’s my foremost priority.”

Providing services at neighborhood public schools instead of shipping kids off to private programs might be a good thing if the school system could show a financial benefit. Right now, DCPS spends an eye-popping $55 million on private tuition for 2,000 special education kids, according to DCPS figures. (That figure includes summer programs.)

Gay says that it’s unclear right now how much the new summer programs will cost—and even whether they will save DCPS money. She won’t know until school officials determine how many kids actually enroll. “I’m not saying damn the costs,” says Gay. “To really make sure we’re being responsible, we have to do it in a quality way.”

But many parents whose kids are in private special ed programs aren’t quite ready to take Gay’s word for it—especially after the latest round of bumbling. “To say they’re going to do something is one thing,” says Jester. “It doesn’t appear they’ve really planned this to the point where it’s not going to fall apart. Lots of parents are going to keep their kids home.” CP