By Hank Dowski
Much has been written about Federal Judge John T. Curtin’s accomplishments since his April 14 passing, especially his role in desegregating Buffalo Public Schools. What hasn’t been reported was his support of handicapped students and their integration into regular education classrooms. Congress recognized this need in 1975 by passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and in 2004 by extending the scope of IDEA to babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
Schools were notoriously slow in following through with the requirements, as in the case of my son Mike, who after one week in kindergarten was removed from the school. My wife and I explored our options and ultimately found a Canadian-trained psychologist who told us of a recently discovered handicapping condition called a learning disability. We had never heard the term before but as we listened to the descriptors, they described Mike to a T!
Our search led us to the College Learning Laboratory at SUNY Buffalo State, which could help Mike academically but proved our next challenge – transporting him from our Youngstown home to Buffalo State. Fortunately, IDEA was in effect and Mike became the first client of a newly established bus transportation company in Niagara County. Years later, after completing his tenure at the learning lab, Mike would finish his school career at Niagara County Community College.
Meanwhile, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, parents of handicapped students filed suit against the Lackawanna School District in Curtin’s court. At some point in the deliberations, Curtin felt that more could be accomplished by appointing a surrogate to represent him in the district as the case proceeded. This is where I came in. I received a call asking if I was interested in being Curtin’s surrogate. As a New York State-certified impartial hearing officer, I had tried many cases of individual student concerns, but the thought of making decisions on a day-to-day basis with a district the size of Lackawanna gave me some misgivings. Meeting with the judge quickly resolved my concerns as he appeared in chambers in his stocking feet and proceeded to assure me that I was better suited than he to solve the issues that were likely to appear.
When I asked him what he saw my role to be, he remarked, “Listen to both sides, consider the law and make the appropriate decision, much like I would.”
And that’s what I did for many years, though not without some anxious moments. One specific example was when the district was directed to appoint a replacement for the special education chairperson. I made it known that of several names discussed, all candidates lacked the necessary background for the position. Imagine my reaction when told that the Board of Education had appointed one of these individuals later that night!
I was reminded of Curtin’s words to me and, after due deliberation, wrote the order to rescind the board’s action. I felt sure that Curtin would be asked to review my actions, but this never occurred. This is just another example of his straightforwardness.
Needless to say, his confidence in my abilities served me well in my role as an impartial hearing officer throughout New York State. My feelings about Curtin during my tenure in Lackawanna have been supported by the recent outpouring of respect, admiration and caring from all who knew him. He indeed was a humble individual, not afraid to acknowledge a deficiency but always seeking the greater good for all concerned. Curtin’s passing is a significant loss to our community.