A Live Controversy


'The Journal' Articles

September 11, 1996

Judge Weighs Autistic Case

Associated Press

Mark Hartmann's parents say he belongs in a normal school, but school officials contend the autistic 11-year-old should be put in a special program.

Mark's parents sued Loudoun County schools in U.S. District Court because school officials decided in 1994 to transfer Mark from a regular classroom at Ashburn Ele­mentary School to a special education program in Lees­burg.

The trial began Monday.

Educational experts and his teachers say Mark should be allowed to attend regular fifth-grade classes because he's been thriving in a regular classroom at a public school in Blacksburg for the last two years.

"Mark is a different person today from what he was, and it's because of how he is being taught," Gerard Rugel, the family's attorney, said in opening arguments. "We will show that the best curriculum for Mark is one that allows him to interact with his academic peers."

But Loudoun officials maintain that Mark did not learn much at Ashburn and that his frequent outbursts caused disruptions that made it difficult for other students to con­centrate on their work. A State Board of Education hearing examiner upheld Loudoun's decision in 1994.

"Our number one goal is that Mark receive a proper edu cation, and we feel placing him in a self-contained program while mainstreaming him for nonacademic classes pro­vides him with the best suited environment," said Kathleen Mehfoud, the Loudoun school system's attorney.

Witnesses for the Hartmanns testified that placing Mark in a class with other autistic children would erase the progress they said he has made in recent years.

While at Kipps Elementary in Blacksburg, Mark be­ came more adept at solving math problems on a computer. He also learned to set up the classroom chairs and follow the words in a book read by a fellow student.

"He was a positive member of our class," said Bev Strag­er, who was Mark's fourth-grade teacher at Kipps."He en­joyed being around other children."

If Mark is placed in a classroom with other autistic chil­dren, he probably would imitate them, making it difficult to prepare for an adult life among non-disabled people, said Patrick Shwarz, an educational consultant who reviewed videotapes of Mark

Loudoun officials contend that while Mark was in regu­lar classes at Ashburn, he couldn't keep up with his peers and learned only through repetition.

The Hartmanns agree that Mark's behavior worsened while he was at Ashburn but argue that Loudoun failed to provide enough teacher assistants and other support.

If Judge Leonie M. Brinkema rules for the Hartmanns, the said, they would transfer Mark back to Ashburn.