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Mother's vigil at school flagpole continues

Wednesday, August 30, 2000

By Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The mother of a Washington County special needs student yesterday continued her vigil strapped to a school flagpole in protest of the handling of her son's education. But a federal judge may end the three-day standoff today.

While McGuffey School District officials maintain they are doing "everything possible" to serve 7-year-old Ryan "Max" Lesneski, who has Down syndrome and a hearing disability, the boy's mother, Deanna Lesneski, used jump ropes and a lawn chair to tie herself to a flagpole at Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School Monday. Yesterday, she was joined by about 20 supporters.

Lesneski, who spent the night there Monday and planned to do so last night, said she has no plans to budge until the district agrees to provide her son with a qualified sign-language interpreter and other services.

Today at 10 a.m., U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich was expected to confer with attorneys representing Lesneski and the district about a possible interim solution.

The protest was sparked Monday morning, the first day of school, when Max had an asthma attack during class. Lesneski, 47, of Buffalo, went to the school, where she said officials told her they wouldn't be administering Max's medications this year.

School officials disputed Lesneski's claim, saying the district will give Max his medicine. By Monday afternoon, representatives of Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living, a disability rights organization in Washington, Pa., had joined the protest. The contingent spent the night at the school in three-hour shifts.

Lesneski said her three older children and two of their friends also spent Monday night with her. During the night, she said, acting school Superintendent Frank Zito appeared, asking the group to reconsider.

She said Zito put restrictions on the demonstration, limiting protesters to an area about 10 feet around the flagpole and informing the group that their cars would be towed from the school lot.

The protesters, some of whom use motorized wheelchairs, were forced to park about a mile away and make their way along rural roads without sidewalks back to the school, she said.

"They are just trying to make it as difficult as possible," she said. "They won't even let us use the restrooms here."

Lesneski said she left her station briefly yesterday morning to relieve herself in the woods while another protester took her seat. She has not eaten and said she sips water at night to sustain herself.

Lesneski said she has requested a meeting with school officials to discuss an individualized education program for Max, who cannot communicate with his teachers or peers because of his hearing disability. Max knows sign language but the school won't provide a qualified interpreter, she said.

School district Solicitor Dennis Makel said he and a group of district officials were willing to meet with Lesneski Monday but that she refused to enter the building.

"I'm not going to conduct an [individualized education program] hearing outside in the parking lot," Makel said.

Lesneski filed a complaint in federal court yesterday asking Cindrich to enforce a 13-point agreement ironed out between the Lesneskis and the district in February. One of Lesneski's attorneys, Pamela Berger of Pittsburgh, said today's conference may yield a temporary solution or Cindrich may schedule a hearing later to resolve the matter.

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