Argument over access

CHAMPION – Parents who are unhappy with the Champion School District’s refusal to provide access for their special-needs son to attend Central Elementary School have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.

During the April meeting, Teresa McCready and Timothy Gleba addressed the Board of Education about installing a removable handicapped-accessible ramp so their son Phoenix, who doesn’t walk, and other students can attend the elementary school. The building – the oldest in the district – has a ramp that provides access to the gym but not to the classrooms. The middle and high school are equipped for people with physical limitations.

District officials at the meeting told the couple that it would be very costly to install elevators in the building and would require the passage of a bond issue. They have offered to transport Phoenix to an area district such as Fairhaven, Lakeview or LaBrae, where educational needs are provided for special-needs children.

“Personally, I don’t think that any of the options are good enough options. I just feel that they are pushing a possible problem off onto someone else’s hands,” Gleba said.

To that end, the Champion couple were filing a complaint Monday with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are hoping that an investigation will be conducted and the district will be ordered to make the school barrier-free so Phoenix and other special-needs children will have access.

Phoenix, 3, also suffers from partial complex seizure disorder, and McCready said a longer bus ride to a school such as Fairhaven in Niles would be a health risk.

“Right before Thanksgiving, he had a grand-mal seizure that lasted six hours,” she said.

“If something were to happen, it takes us that much longer to be at his side,” Gleba said, adding that home schooling would limit his social interaction. “His doctors tell us this is the age that he needs to start interacting with other children.”

McCready said she doesn’t want Phoenix to feel he is being treated differently than his brothers and that he deserves to attend school in Champion.

“I was told by Champion that they could handle all of his educational needs. I want what’s best for Phoenix, and the only reason he can’t attend Champion is because he isn’t walking. We weren’t asking them to build a new school or to put elevators in,” said McCready, a 1998 graduate of Champion. “We just want him to have everything that his brothers have,” she said, adding that she and her husband suggested the installation of a ramp.

According to a school board member, making the school accessible is a matter of both practicality and affordability.

“There’s just no hope to make Champion Central Elementary a handicapped accessible building,” said board member Roger Samuelson on Monday. “You could not put a ramp in there that is long enough to fit.”

Samuelson said the ramp at the high school covers the height of about three steps and is roughly 20 feet long, explaining that state law mandates dimensions of ramps, such as the incline. A ramp at the elementary school would have to span an entire floor, he said.

“There’s no place in that building that you could put it,” he said. Also, the newest addition to the school was built in 1948, and he said investing a large amount of money into a building that old would defy logic.

“There’s no monies coming from the state or from anywhere else that would help us pay for it. Maybe some day in the future we can do that, but not now. We are hoping that we will have a new building some day,” he said. “It’s just a situation that there’s no way to fix it, and we believe that we are offering (a fair) alternative.”

Dena Iverson, spokeswoman for the Justice department’s Civil Rights Division, said there are many variables that will be taken into consideration, such as age of the building, whether it has been altered since it was built and the expense. Once the complaint is received, she said, it will be reviewed by the Civil Rights Division.

“We’re not doing this to fight the school, we’re not doing this to be thorns in people’s sides. We’re just doing this to fight for the rights and the needs and the opportunities that my child deserves to have that every other child gets,” Gleba said.

In a similar situation in Parma, a school district was ordered by the Office of Civil Rights to improve accessibility at several schools and sports venues or not use the facilities as the result of a civil suit filed by parents under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The OCR informed the district of the need for compliance last spring.

Attempts to reach Champion Superintendent Pamela Hood on Monday were unsuccessful.