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Appeals court hears Lakeland School case

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 13, 2007, 12:03 p.m.)

Terry Mayer/The Week
While the court case is unresolved, construction continues on the new Lakeland School.

The legality of Walworth County's ongoing construction of a bigger school for children with disabilities was scheduled for oral arguments Friday before three federal appeals court judges.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, a disabled persons advocacy group, filed suit against the county in federal court in July 2006 saying that a new, bigger school violates Americans with Disabilities Act standards. The suit says the new school promotes further segregation of students.

The county says a new school is needed because the existing school is deficient and too small. The new school addresses the deficiencies and is not intended to attract more students, an attorney for the county said.

A federal judge in Milwaukee denied the case, saying Disability Rights Wisconsin failed to identify anyone who was harmed by the school.

The hearing Friday at the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was expected to address only that issue and whether the merits of the case should be heard.

"We are not focused on a particular individual," said Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. "We're focused on the way the system is set up."

Disability Rights Wisconsin now has clients who say they were harmed because they were not given a choice in their child's education, Spitzer-Resnick said. He would not disclose names.

Ron Stadler, the attorney representing the county, said Lakeland School is an educational choice in a series of options. No student is forced to attend the school, he said.

"There is nothing illegal about the size of the school, whether they build it the size they are, or three times as big or 10 times as big," Stadler said. "The only way you can violate the law is if a child's placement is not appropriate to be at Lakeland and (the county) refuses to take them out of Lakeland."

If the appeals court sides with Disability Rights Wisconsin, the case will revert to U.S. District Court in Milwaukee. If the appeals court sides with the county, Disability Rights Wisconsin will have to consider whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A decision from the court is not expected for two to six months, Spitzer-Resnick said.

Despite the looming lawsuit, Walworth County broke ground on building the new school last April. Construction is more than half done.


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