Archive for Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Federal investigators visit Cordley after complaint

Accessibility issues prompt visit by Office of Civil Rights representatives

July 2, 2003


Federal investigators converged Tuesday on Cordley School to examine allegations that the Lawrence district's oldest elementary building is in violation of U.S. law on access for students with disabilities.

The probe stems from a complaint filed by a Lawrence parent.

The visit by three investigators from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights took an odd turn when they abruptly walked out of a meeting with district representatives in a Cordley classroom.

Investigators declined to be interviewed by reporters, referring questions to Angela Bennett, an administrator with the Office of Civil Rights in Kansas City, Mo.

Bennett didn't return calls for comment.

Kim Bodensteiner, Cordley's principal, said federal investigators told district officials they wouldn't inspect Cordley while reporters were at the school.

"They won't proceed with the press here," she said.

Once reporters left the school at 18th and Vermont streets, federal investigators returned for the inspection. They remained into the afternoon.

Bruce Passman, the district's director of special education, said he could confirm only that the agency was focusing on a "facility accessibility" issue at Cordley.

He declined to discuss details of the complaint filed by Brent Garner of Lawrence.

No elevator

Garner, who failed to make it out of the primary election for the Lawrence school board in February, submitted a complaint to the federal government in May on behalf of his fifth-grade daughter. She has a disability related to head trauma suffered in a traffic accident.

Garner claimed in his complaint that Cordley doesn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Cordley lacks an elevator that his daughter and other students with disabilities could use to reach second-floor classrooms, he said.

"She will not be attending Cordley," Garner vowed.

Garner lives in the Deerfield School attendance area, but his daughter had been a transfer student at Centennial School. When it became clear the school board would close Centennial, Garner submitted his ADA complaint about Cordley. About half of Centennial's students will go to Cordley.

Garner later amended the complaint to allege retaliation by district administrators. He based that assertion on the district's denial of a request to transfer his daughter to Sunflower School.

"I think the district is going to have a problem," Garner said.

Equal access

The ADA ensures that, in most circumstances, people with disabilities have the same opportunities and access to the work place, schools, transportation and communications other citizens enjoy.

Supt. Randy Weseman said the district would cooperate with the OCR investigation. He said the district meets ADA requirements. Entire classrooms have been moved to other areas of a school to accommodate a student with a disability, he said.

Attending the meeting at Cordley with OCR investigators were Pete Curran, the district's attorney; Sue Morgan, school board member; and Brad Kiehl, an associate with the DLR Group consulting firm.

DLR Group did an ADA compliance assessment of district schools prior to development of a $59 million school bond proposal, which was defeated in April by voters.

Under the bond plan, $4.6 million in additions and renovations would have been authorized at Cordley. Part of that money would have paid for upgrades of rest rooms, classrooms and entrances to better serve people with disabilities.

Investigation is first step

Carlin Hertz, spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview that he couldn't speculate about how long the investigation would take.

He said a report in response to ADA compliance questions would be presented to the school district. If Garner's complaint is valid, Hertz said, the district would have two options.

"It's up to them if they want to address the problem or refuse to accept the findings," Hertz said.

Failure to act on ADA shortcomings could result in loss of federal funding to the district and referral of the case to lawyers in the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.

Questions about the well-being of Cordley students also were raised recently by Dr. John Hiebert, a Lawrence cardiologist.

Hiebert suspects some students at Cordley may have been exposed to lead-based paint. He urged the district to test students for lead poisoning.

Currently, the district has no plans to test children who might have been exposed to lead at the school.

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