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Lonesome Wolf

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Often alone among her colleagues on the Richmond School Board, Carol A.O. Wolf is now just alone. But she says she's ready to call for federal reinforcements if necessary.

Appointed last month to a subcommittee of one, Wolf has been tasked to review the school system's compliance with its 2005 Americans with Disabilities Act court settlement. The school system (which agreed to make millions of dollars of ADA improvements) is two years into that settlement. Critics including Wolf say that little if anything has been done to bring the majority of the district's more than 50 facilities into ADA compliance.

"We are two years into the plan and we have done nothing," Wolf says, noting that ADA law required Richmond schools be handicapped-accessible more than a decade ago. Yet, she says, "we have paid for nothing. We have accomplished nothing."

Wolf says she plans to change that -- whether it's by working from within the subcommittee appointment or by taking her complaint of heel-dragging by schools officials to the federal government.

Wolf says she plans to contact the U.S. Department of Justice or U.S. Department of Education to call attention to the city's failure to bring schools into ADA compliance. "We're at a point where ADA has been the law of the land since 1992," she says. "And yet we still have a City Hall that until recently didn't even have any ADA signage."

Wolf isn't the only ADA advocate pushing against the turgid immobility of the school system in its crawl toward ADA compliance.

A petition circulating among Richmond parents that will be presented to City Council Jan. 14 calls on City Council and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder to do an about-face on their refusal to pony up funds to pay for the school system's ADA settlement.

Last year an appellate court decision absolved the city from paying for the schools settlement agreement. The judge's decision did not preclude the plaintiffs in the case from refiling to seek payment from the city — something plaintiffs' lawyers have said is not out of the question. But Wilder declared the decision as a definitive win for the city. And City Council President Bill Pantele has been vocal in his refusal to allow money earmarked for the City of the Future, Wilder's once-ambitious city revitalization plan, to pay for ADA fixes to school facilities. City of the Future money already has been used to make ADA improvements to other city facilities, including public libraries.

"City Council has pretty much ignored our plight for three years," says Vickie Beatty, a parent of a student with a disability and a party to the lawsuit, who declines to comment on further legal action. "It will be their option as to how they take this [petition] and where this goes."

Where it likely will go is nowhere fast, suggests one expert in the field of disabilities rights, Marca Bristo, a former political appointee of President Bill Clinton who chaired the National Council on Disability.

"The thing of the matter is, with all the civil rights laws, we have a responsibility to ensure that they're enforced," says Bristo, who's also president of a Chicago-area rights group seeking equal treatment for students with disabilities. "The laws don't self-enforce."

The laws also have few teeth. Should Wolf send a letter to the Department of Justice or the Department of Education about Richmond's lagging ADA compliance, it's a tossup whether the feds might act. The law allows for the withholding of federal funding from local governments that do not comply, although that's rarely done.

"They have been historically reluctant to do things like withhold funds," Bristo says. "You know, though, sometimes the threat of withholding is enough to cause a recalcitrant agency to do what they wouldn't do otherwise."

A spokesman with the Department of Justice referred questions related to ADA compliance in schools to the Department of Education. The Department of Education did not respond by press time.

It's sad, Bristo says, that it should come to this in cases that so clearly are about the basic human rights of those denied access to government facilities.

"These laws are not academic and sometimes people forget these are not architectural laws," she says of the act, passed in 1990. "These are civil rights laws. What the school district is doing … it's not a whole lot different, I imagine, than when the African-American community was trying to gain access to the schools."

Parent Vickie Beatty is holding out hope that a change in School Board leadership might bring better cooperation from the school system. Beatty says she was encouraged to hear the School Board begin to consider how to incorporate money for ADA compliance during a committee meeting in early December.

"I saw two School Board members trying to come up with ways to incorporate the ADA into resolutions for the City of the Future … but you don't start it the day before something's due," says Beatty, who watched those sympathetic board members' efforts rebuffed by the board's chairman, George Braxton.

Braxton, she says, has done nothing to educate the rest of the board on his participation in negotiations related to the ADA settlement agreement: "I think if they'd been informed and allowed to participate, I think there would have been a different conclusion."

Wolf's own appointment to her ADA subcommittee was something of an outgrowth of the December committee meeting, at which she repeatedly voiced concerns about the district's failure to live up to its ADA promises.

She acknowledges that the appointment likely is an attempt by her colleagues to kill two birds with one stone: to give the appearance of making good on its ADA promises to the judge and plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and to quiet her chain-rattling over the board's failure to act.

Wolf says she has not yet sent her letter seeking federal intervention. "I hope that it's not necessary," she says, but "anyone who doubts that the Justice Department has the teeth to enforce ADA needs to … see what was done in Tucson, Ariz., or at Madison Square Garden in New York, at the Liberty Bowl, at Swarthmore [College]." S



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