A Live Controversy


Leesburg Today

October 8, 1997

Hartmanns Appeal To High Court

The attorneys representing Mark Hartmann, a 12 year old autistic boy, petitioned the US Supreme Court on Oct. 1 to reverse the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. On July 8, the Appeals Court overruled on technical grounds a Federal District Court judge"s decision directing the Loudoun County Public Schools to accommodate the special classroom needs of Mark.

Hartmann's parents have been involved in a lengthy legal battle with the Loudoun County public school system to have their son placed in a regular classroom at Ashburn Elementary School. In 1994, the Loudoun school system sued the Hartmanns to have Mark removed from a regular classroom, arguing that Mark received no academic benefit from inclusion and disrupted the learning environment for other students. The school board won the case at the state level, but the Hartmanns appealed in federal court, and last November, Federal District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that the school system did not make enough effort to include Mark in a regular classroom and was in violation requirements for states to educate disabled children with non-disabled children to the maximum extent possible. The appeals court found that Brinkema should have given more "consideration to the findings of the administrative hearing conducted by the Virginia Department of Education. At that hearing it was decided that Mark should be educated in a classroom for children with autism.

The Supreme Court is not obligated to hear the case and four of the nine justices must decide to hear the arguments when it is brought before them in conference. There is no deadline for their decision.

"This case has become more of a technical decision and less about the education of Mark," said Gerard Rugel, the Hartmann's attorney.

Kathy Mehfoud, the attorney representing the school system, says she doesn't believe the Supreme Court will grant the petition.

December 11, 1996

System Failed

Editor, Leesburg Today

This is a plea to all parents with children in the Loudoun County school system to come together to let the system know we will not stand for absurdities such as those imposed on the Hartmanns.

How can we tolerate a child being set up to fail? How can we tolerate a child's rights being so blatantly violated? How can we tolerate supervisors who sabotage a child's education? We can't, because it is our children who suffer.

The money, time and effort spent to keep Mark Hartmann from receiving the education that is rightfully his could have gone toward training the staff, training that would not only benefit our special ed students, but all students. Every classroom in this country has students who are learning at different levels. So, the average child, the gifted child, the struggling child and the special ed child would all benefit from staff trained to teach and reach all students.

Yes, I am a parent of a child with special needs but I am, also, the parent of a "typical" child, and I want a quality education for both of my children. The point I'm trying to stress is, this is not just about special education, but about a system showing total disregard for the rights and needs of a child. This must stop. Mark did not fail but the Loudoun County school system failed Mark. And those responsible for failing Mark must be held accountable.

And as much as the "regular ed" parent would like to think this is just a "special ed" problem, if nothing else you think of the tens of thousands of your tax dollars this system has spent just to block a little boy from getting an appropriate education. And now they are planning to spend more of your tax dollars to appeal the case. Why? The courts will uphold the law, and Mark's right to an education in an inclusive setting with supports and services is the law.

Call or write your school board representative, let them know we the taxpayer, voter and parent will not let this issue go unchallenged.

Kennu Akers

December 11, 1996

Hartmann Appeal Voted

The Loudoun school board will ask a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court decision ordering the county to mainstream Mark Hartmann, an eleven year old autistic child whose parents fought his removal from a regular classroom at Ashburn Elementary School and placement in a special class.

Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema recently ruled against the School system holding that it did not make sufficient effort to include Mark in his regular classroom. The court found that his removal violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In 1994, the school system sued the Hartrnanns to remove Mark from his regular Ashburn Elementary School classroom, arguing that Mark received no academic benefit from being included in a regular classroom and that he disrupted the learning environment for other students. The school board won its case at the state level, and Mark's mother, Roxana Hartmann, moved with her son to Montgomery County, VA where he was placed in a regular classroom with an aide.

"I'm disappointed the school board wasn't ready to sit down and educate Mark in a way they are capable of doing," said the Hartrnanns' attorney, Gerard Rugel, who argued that Mark's success in Montgomery County demonstrates that he can be successful in a regular classroom setting.

If the ruling is upheld, Loudoun schools will be required to educate Mark in a regular classroom and provide necessary teacher training. Rugel says he will ask Brinkema to issue an injunction requiring the Loudoun school to start training staff members pending the appeal so that Mark can be placed in a regular sixth grade class next fall.

Rugel says the Hartmanns will ask the judge to award them up to $125,000 in legal fees.

September 4, 1996

Hartmann Case In Federal Court

The case of Mark Hartmann, an eleven year old autistic boy whose parents are still fighting his removal from a regular education classroom in Loudoun County public schools, is scheduled to be heard in Federal District Court in Alexandria on Monday Sept. 9.

The case could have a significant impact on the county"s special education program and on the extent of services public schools nationwide are required to provide to disabled students.

In 1994, a hearing officer ruled in favor of the local school system in its attempt to remove Mark from a regular classroom at Ashburn Elementary School and place him in a special education program for autistic children. Mark's mother, Roxana Hartmann, moved to Montgomery County, Virginia where a regular classroom program is in place for severely disabled students. Mark started school in Montgomery County in March 1995. He was included in regular classrooms in grades three and four at that school.

The Hartmanns claim the Loudoun system failed to provide the appropriate support and training required to implement a successful inclusion program and are appealing the hearing officer's decision based on new evidence that alleges Mark's success in a regular classroom in the Montgomery County school system. The school system had attempted to have the federal case dismissed, arguing that Mark no longer lives in Loudoun, but the court rejected that request since Mark's father, Joe Hartmann, still resides in Ashburn.

The family's goal is to bring Mark back to a regular classroom in Loudoun.

The Hartmanns' lawyer, Gerard S. Rugel, says he intends to present testimony from Mark's classroom teacher and his inclusion facilitator in Montgomery County to provide "evidence that Mark has been in an inclusive setting and is making educational progress."

May 22, 1995

Hartmann Case Back In Court

The case of Mark Hartmann, a 10-year­old autistic child whose parents fought the Loudoun school system's efforts to remove him from a mainstream elementary classroom, is scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court this summer. The case could become a test of how far school districts must go to accommodate students with severe learning disorders.

In 1994, the Loudoun school system sued the Hartmanns in Loudoun Circuit Court to remove Mark from a regular third grade class at Ashburn Elementary School and place him in a special class for autistic children at Leesburg Elementary School.

The school system says Mark received no academic benefit from being in a regular classroom and that he disrupted the learning environment in that classroom.

Marks' parents argued that their son has the right to be educated in a regular classroom to prepare him for future interaction with nondisabled peers. They say the school system has not made enough effort toward inclusion of disabled students in mainstream classrooms and blame their son's lack of progress in Loudoun on inadequate training of school staff.

In early 1995, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school system, and the Hartmanns took their case to the federal level. Roxana Hartmann and her son then moved to Blacksburg specifically to enroll him in that school system. There, they became involved in another legal battle to enroll their son in that school system. A circuit court judge ruled that they had established legal residency in that district and Mark was enrolled in a regular classroom at Kipps Elementary where he is currently finishing fourth grade. Joseph Hartmann says his son is doing well in the Blacksburg school.

The school system argued that the federal case is moot since Mark no longer resides in the county. But Mark's father still lives in Ashburn, and in March, a federal judge denied the school system's bid to have the lawsuit dismissed. The suit will likely go to trial this summer, with a date scheduled to be set in mid-July.

February 22, 1995

Hartmanns In Second Case

The parents of a 9-year-old autistic child who lost their bid to keep him in a regular Ashburn Elementary School classroom are now involved in a legal battle in rural Montgomery County after attempting ot enroll the child in that southwest Virginia school system.

After attempting to set up residency in Montgomery County by leasing a home, Roxana and Joseph Hartmann were informed that their son Mark would not be allowed to enter the public school there. A Circuit Court judge has takent he case under advisement.

The Hartmann's are also awaiting a ruling on their appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals over the decision of a hearing office that Mark could be transferred by the school systems from Ashburn Elementary to a special class for autistic children at Leesburg Elementary.

January 21, 1995

Appeal Officer Named in Hartmann Case

Richmond attorney Alexander N. Simon has been appointed by the State Supreme Court to hear an appeal filed by the parents of nine-year old Mark Hartmann against a Dec. 15 ruling which upheld a Loudoun School Board decision to remove the autistic child from a regular classroom at Ashburn Elementary and place him in a special education program in Leesburg.

According to Gerard S. Rugel, the lawyer for the Hartmanns, transcripts of testimony and copies of documents and evidence presented during the earlier hearing will be forwarded to Simon, after which the case will be argued through briefs presented by the legal representatives of each side. Rugel says a meeting next week will finalize the procedure the appeal will follow, including whether either side will be allowed to present new evidence or oral arguments.

During the earlier hearing, school board lawyer Kathleen Meyford successfully argued that the child had received no academic benefits from being in a classroom with his peers.

The case has received close scrutiny nationally and may become a landmark test of how far schools must go to accommodate students with severe learning disorders. If the appeal fails, the case could be carried over into the court system and eventually reach the US Supreme Court.

Rather than transfer Mark to the Leesburg school, the Hartmanns have removed him from the county school system. Roxana Hartmann says the family has received offers of a number of alternative recommendations for the child's education, including placing him in a private school.

The family has also set up a defense fund for the case which, to date, has cost them more than $30,000.

December 23, 1994

Parents To Appeal Autistic Ruling

The parents of nine-year-old Mark Hartmann will file an appeal with the Virginia Department of Education over the decision handed down last week by a state appointed hearing officer who ruled that the autistic child must be removed from a third grade classroom at Ashburn Elementary School and placed in a program with other disabled students.

According to family lawyer Gerard S. Rugel, Roxanna and Joseph Hartmann have decided to appeal the decision, even though the hearing officer required the school system to meet a number of specific stipulations.

"We're trying to work out a program for Mark in the interim," Rugel said this week. It is unclear whether Mark would be allowed to remain in the Ashburn classroom while the appeal is pending. Rugel also confirmed that the Hartmanns have already spent almost $30,000 on the case.

McBride's decision followed five days of testimony, followed by almost a month of deliberation concerning Mark's academic progress, potential and social skills from witnesses who included his parents, special education experts, and teachers and administrators from both Loudoun and the Illinois school system in which he had been enrolled prior to the family's arrival in Virginia in the fall of 1993.

Much of the testimony was contradictory, primarily because of the difficulty in assessing the success or failure of Mark's inclusion in regular classrooms. Mark is unable to speak or write and is only able to communicate through a special device.

McBride agreed with the county's proposal to place Mark in an academic class with other autistic children for part of the day while "mainstreaming" him with regular children for non-academic activities such as music, library, art and PE. But McBride also directed that the child always be accompanied by a teacher or aide in the mainstream environments and that he remain in the same regular education class for those activities. She also stressed that the school system must adapt its autism program to suit Mark's unique needs and abilities. "It is Mark's Individual Education Plan that must be implemented in this setting, not just that of a typical autistic child," McBride said. "The needs assessed must be his needs, and not needs presumed to exist because he is autistic."

McBride based her decision on two specific criteria – whether the county's proposal violated its obligation to educate Mark to the maximum extent possible in the company of nondisabled children; and whether he would be included to the maximum extent possible in the county's proposal.

She found that the county had made sufficient efforts in its attempt to accommodate Mark, citing that the system had provided a smaller number of students in the classroom, training for the teacher and aide, modified and adapted the curriculumand attempted to devise ways to manage Mark's behavior. She rejected allegations tHat the school system had withdrawn support of the IEP it had accepted from Illinois and that undue pressure was placed on the IEP team by the school system's Director of Pupil Services Ned Waterhouse.

"The limited benefits Mark has received from his experience in the regular classroom demonstrate the continued need for meaningful contact with nondisabled peers. However, the fact that he has received virtually no educational benefit weighs heavily in the determination that he cannot be educated satisfactorily in the regular classroom," McBride wrote.

"I think some of her decisions don't agree with the facts," Rugel said. "The school system had a poorly conceived program from the beginning. They didn't have it together until March, so time was wasted. If they had had a program in place from the start he would have had success."

November 2, 1994

Hearing Concludes

Hearing officer Nancy McBride, who was appointed by the State Supreme Court to hear the case, announced last week that she would hand down a ruling by Dec. 9 on whether autistic third grade student Mark Hartmann should remain in a regular Ashburn Elementary School classroom or be transferred to a special education program in Leesburg.

On October 27, Hartmann's mother, Roxanna, testified that including her son in a regular classroom is vital in preparing him for a future in which he will be required-to interact with his peers. Hartmann blamed her son's lack of progress in Loudoun on improper preparation and trainingby school authorities and staff to deal with an autistic child. Throughout the hearings she has stressed that the family's reason for wanting Mark included in a regular classroom was for rum to learn socialization skills, while conceding that normal academic progress was an unrealistic goal.

The hearings, which have run intermittently since September, have presented contradictory testimony on Mark's progress in the Ashburn school's second grade class in which he was enrolled after the familly moved to Loudoun from Illinois. School officials from Illinois testified in September that Mark's inclusion had been successful during the two years he had been in their system.

Loudoun administrators and teachers have testified that that Mark's progress was exaggerated by those in Illinois and that he was far behind his peers in both academic and social skills, disruptive in the classroom and unable to remember things he had learned weeks earlier. His second grade teacher strongly urged that he be placed in the autistic program in Leesburg.

At a school board meeting last week, a number of parents accused NedWaterhouse, Director of Pupil Services, of not supporting inclusion as a sound practice in dealing with handicapped children. Citing the testimony of education consultant Jamie Ruppman during the Hartmann hearings, the parents charged that, as early as December 1993, Waterhouse had allegedly decided that Mark should be transferred to the autistic class in Leesburg and had directed the staff to prepare its case should the parents object.

Waterhouse denied that he had attempted to intimidate the participants in the December meeting, saying "I stated clearly that it would be the responsibility of those who worked with the child to determine what to do."

August 17, 1994

Testimony Paints Contradictory Picture of Autistic Child

A hearing officer appointed by the State Supreme Court to decide the future education of young Mark Hartmann began taking testimony this week on whether the autistic child should be permitted to continue in the regular classroom education he began here last year. Following three more days of testimony scheduled for September, the officer will decide whether to sustain the county's decision to place the child in a special education setting, or order the system to allow him to stay in a regular classroom.

During the past school year, Hartmann was enrolled in a second grade class at Ashburn Elementary School. He had moved to the county from Chicago with his parents, Roxana and Joseph Hartmann, last year, arriving with an independent education plan which was supported by federal regulations dealing with the inclusion of the physically disabled in public classrooms.

Mark's entry into public school began in 1991 at Butterfield Elementary School in Illinois when the principal, Sandra Truax, was contacted by the Hartmanns while Mark was a pre-schooler at a school, which specialized in severely handicapped children. The Hartmanns wanted Mark enrolled in a regular classroom. After seeing Mark in his school setting and discussing his needs with his parents, Truax became convinced that he needed as much schooling as possible. It was decided that he would spend the mornings in a special class with other autistic children and the afternoons in regular kindergarten. The district school superintendent set the climate by announcing that inclusion for disabled children would be the option for schools in that Illinois district. Mark became the first autistic child to take advantage of that option.

A special aide was assigned to work one on one with him in the classroom. He was assigned a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. Truax organized a team comprised of herself, Mark's teacher, special education advisors and experts who planned a curriculum.

Once Mark entered kindergarten, the team began seeing unacceptable behavior patterns, according to testimony offered this week. When frustrated, he threw tantrums which included kicking, screeching and throwing himself in the floor. Agreeing there were certain things he had to hear, they repeatedly told him "no" and "Boys and Girls at Butterfield don't behave that way." They said those things over and over and, according to Truax's testimony this week, Mark eventually began to change.

"Our philosophy academically for Mark was to instill listening, communication, decision making and problem solving skills," Truax testified in Leesburg. "We looked at what other children were doing and looked at what Mark might pull out of all of that. We didn't expect him to achieve at normal academic grade levels."

At the end of the year, the team recommended that Mark be placed full time in a regular classroom. He was assigned an aide, Mary Ann Mrazek, who worked with his teacher to devise a separate lesson plan for each day's work. Both the teacher and Mrazek were given specific training and the school trained two substitute teachers to fill in when either of the regular teachers could not be in class.

Once school started, Mrazek had her hands full, she testified. Mark would fight, kick, pinch and throw tantrums. She would hold both his hands and loudly tell him "no." Sometimes she would have to physically remove him from the classroom. She often went home with bruises.

"The teachers all used the same language and actions with him such as "quiet voice" or "hands down," Mrazek testified. "In the beginning there was not a lot of change, but, amazingly, within a few weeks, Mark learned to enter the classroom in line, stand for the pledge of allegiance and follow directions."

By the end of the year, Mark was able to walk by himself to the far end of the building for speech therapy class. Mrazek believes he made academic gains in spelling and math but couldn't judge just how much.

Since he is unable to speak, Mark does his talking through a Canon communicator, similar to a typewriter with a screen. Mrazek held his arm when he typed words into the communicator and she testified that he once got 70% to 80% on a spelling test which was given audibly by the teacher. He liked working on the computer and she ordered more than 55 programs for him.

"I think his bad behavior went down as his self esteem rose," Mrazek said. "He was doing the same things the other children were doing by the end of the year. He didn't impair the other children's ability to learn and they all became a more caring classroom."

In June, the Hartmanns notified Truax that they were being relocated to the Washington, DC area. Mark became depressed. When Mrazek asked what was wrong, he typed into the communicator, "DC."

"It was a wrenching separation for us when they moved," Truax says. "We felt we had made such progress and had gotten past the hard times. We wanted to continue."

When the family arrived in Leesburg, Ashburn second grade teacher Diane Johnson was not told that Mark would definitely be in her class until late August. She called his teacher in Illinois, read his records thoroughly and talked with the Hartmanns. She attended a three hour workshop on facilitation. Johnson had no experience with an autistic child and testified that she was offered no training. An aide was assigned to work with Mark. Between them, they would handle 21 children, including Mark.

Early on, Johnson told her class that Mark was special and that their classroom was the only one in the county with someone like him. She testified that the children loved him, protected and tried to guide him. When he got too noisy, they would say "quiet voice." Yet, according to Johnson, what they did was of no interest to Mark. He initiated no interaction with his peers. If too many children were around him, he would pinch their faces or flap his arms. The students became accustomed to the outbursts and learned to stay out of his way and screen out the sounds. According to Roxana Hartmann, thirteen of Mark's former classmates responded in a recent survey that they would like to have him in their class next year.

"He cannot speak," Johnson testified. "He made sounds, grunts, groans, laughs, crys and screeches. If he didn't want to do something, he would get up and walk away or throw himself in the floor and kick his feet. He wouldn't stay in his seat more than 10 to 15 minutes, then would close his book and go to the bean bag chair or just wander around the c1assroom."

"The tantrums usually took place when he was asked to do some kind of academic work," she testified. "I saw it as frustration.

"His level of function wasn't nearly as high as what I'd been led to believe," Johnson testified. She felt that Mark wasn't reading, although she had been told he had finished the first grade primer in Illinois. He could count to five, and was eventually taught to count consistently to twelve on the computer, but could not remember a skill mastered a week earlier. She testified that Mark could write his first name semi-legibly, could copy a word if someone held his wrist or the pencil, and could duplicate it on the communicator but did not initiate any speech on the communicator. Johnson questioned whether Mark was actually doing the work on the communicator, or if the aide was subconsciously leading him to the correct letters, She testifiedthat she saw the computer as becoming nothing more than a baby sitter since all Mark wanted to do was repeat the basic mouse practice program. After the first report card, she suggested to the Hartmanns that she teach Mark on a kindergarten level. They agreed. Johnson sought the help of experts but found it contradictory. A team was set up to meet weekly to formulate methods for working with Mark. She tried every suggestion but in the end, decided she had to do what worked best for her.

"We were trying to include him, yet teach him like a special education child," Johnson testified. "I thought that's what inclusion was. Now, I don't see how it could work. He was happiest doing things he knew how to do. When we tried to teach him new programs, I felt he wanted to say, "This is just too hard."

At the end of the year, Johnson recommended that Mark be placed in a one on one situation where he could learn academic skills and then be mainstreamed into a regular classroom part of each day. She observed the county's program for autistic children and felt confident that Mark would benefit from it. She didn't feel that Mark had gotten anything out of being included in a regular classroom, rather, that he had lost a year. She testified that she began to wonder, "Why are they doing this to Mark?"

In September, the hearing officer will decide Mark's future in the Loudoun school system. Her decision could have a far reaching effect on how other disabled children are taught within the system.

Carolyn Green