Advocacy group wants Lakeland case to continue

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Sept. 25, 2006, 11:38 a.m.)

Disability Rights Wisconsin, a disabled persons advocacy group that is suing Walworth County, asked a federal judge to let the civil case over the proposed building of a bigger Lakeland School continue in the courts.

DRW says building a bigger school for children with disabilities further promotes segregation of those children and thus violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. It filed suit against the Walworth County Board July 31.

Attorneys who represent Walworth County filed a motion to have the case thrown out, alleging DRW failed to establish proper grounds to bring the suit.

In a Sept. 14 response motion opposing the case's dismissal, DRW argues it has the right to bring a suit because of its status as the state-appointed advocacy group for disabled persons.

"DRW is empowered to pursue legal, administrative and other appropriate remedies to ensure the protection of the rights of persons with developmental disabilities or mental illness," the motion reads.

DRW filed the suit on behalf of children with disabilities who live in Walworth County. Those children have the right to be educated in the most integrated and least restrictive environment possible, DRW says.

The county argued for dismissal, alleging DRW filed as a class action lawsuit but failed to identify any injury caused by the building of a new school.

"I think that if they had somebody who wanted to file (a suit), then they'd have the ability to file," said Ron Stadler, an attorney representing the county. "DRW does not have the ability to sue on its own."

DRW says it, and the disabled children in the county, will suffer injuries if a bigger Lakeland School is built. The new school can accept more students and will divert funds that could be used for other special education services provided in local school districts.

"Increased enrollment at Lakeland, in violation of the integration mandate under both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, will in turn result in DRW expending increased resources to represent the increased number of children whose parents oppose such segregation," the motion reads.

"I think that they are wrong in what they are trying to do by trying to prevent a school instead of addressing the individual need for individual students," Stadler said.

"If they represented someone, a particular person, I think they'd have the ability to (file suit). To come forward and attempt to sue, when nobody who's affected wants them to sue, I think that's a misguided position."

DRW contends that not all children educated at Lakeland need to be educated at Lakeland. A majority of students do not have "significant needs" and could be educated better at neighborhood schools, said DRW attorney Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick.

"What this case is in large part about is establishing a school and making it bigger," Spitzer-Resnick said. "If you build it, they will come. It ends up creating this further segregation by its very existence.

"Now what we have in many other communities is they made the decision to integrate. Even in the handful of areas where they do have special schools, they're much smaller. And where there are other buildings, nobody else has made the decision to make them bigger."

DRW would not sue Walworth County if the board chose to have a new school that accepts fewer students. There are about 270 students at Lakeland School.

The county should work toward placing more Lakeland students in neighborhood schools, Spitzer-Resnick said.

Supporters of Lakeland School say they enjoy having the option.

A group of more than 100 parents recently filed a civil rights complaint against DRW for filing the lawsuit.

The complaint alleges DRW is attempting to deprive their children's civil right to receive educational services at a "special school," according to a news release. Both federal and state laws allow the existence of a school for children with disabilities, the parents contend.

DRW has said it is not against the existence of Lakeland School, merely the expansion of services that allegedly violate ADA standards.




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