BOSTON — PUBLIC schools cannot cut off educational help to children with severe disabilities, even if those children are unable to benefit from the services, according to a US Supreme Court action on Monday. The court, without comment, refused to hear an appeal by a New Hampshire school district that was ordered to help a severely disabled boy. The case involved Timothy W., a 13-year-old who performs at the level of a newborn baby on a number of tests.
The federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 provides money for programs for disabled children; it also requires schools to have such programs and for states to provide a ``free, appropriate, and public education'' for all children.
The issue: What constitutes education when a child is virtually comatose, and who pays for it?
The boy's mother filed suit after failing in attempts to get the school district to provide special education for Timothy. She has said that he responds to light and music, touching, and talking. The school district, after consultation with experts, had determined that he was incapable of benefiting from educational services and therefore didn't qualify under federal education statutes. The US District Court agreed.
But the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that nonetheless Timothy is entitled to the services. Since 1985 the Rochester, N.H., school district has been paying for him to go to a child development center to receive physical therapy.
``We want to stress that this child needs services; we have empathy for him,'' says Raymond Yeagley, Rochester school superintendent. ``We just don't believe the education budget is the proper place to go to get those services. They should come from the human-service agencies and medical resources that provide these kinds of therapy.''
August Steinhilber, general council for the National Association of School Boards, one of the organizations supporting the Rochester school board's appeal, says the issue is how the obligations of a school district are defined. He says in other cases districts are paying for what amounts to 24-hour custodial care.
``All of the money and effort spent on these kinds of cases means that time and effort is not being spent on children who have the capability of learning,'' he says. ``And I'm talking of a broad definition of learning. There are a lot of handicapped children who won't learn in a traditional sense, but we can provide training so they can have a better life.''
But others wonder where the line gets drawn between who can learn and who can't. ``Is it appropriate to exclude some children from education?'' asks Fred Weintraub, assistant executive director for governmental relations of the Council for Exceptional Children. ``What criteria [are] used? Do you leave it to the superintendent of schools? Test scores? Congress said `all' [children] and they meant all.''
Gerard Zelin, the lawyer who represented the school district, says Congress has not backed its demands with adequate funding. The 1975 law called for $800 per student, he says, but Congress has never appropriated more than $300 per student. Timothy's care adds up to $15,000 a year.