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Mom continues school protest; U.S. judge demands information

Thursday, August 31, 2000

By Torsten Ove and Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

While Max Lesneski's mother remained strapped to a flagpole yesterday in protest of how the McGuffey School District is educating her special needs son, a federal judge ordered the district's lawyer to provide him with its medication policy and give him the name of Max's sign language aide.

U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich refused to order Deanna Lesneski to end her vigil, saying he cannot infringe on her First Amendment right to protest.

Cindrich, obviously irritated that the attorneys for the district and Lesneski can't seem to agree on anything, said if the dispute continues he'll order a full hearing and find out the facts for himself.

In the meantime, he ordered McGuffey Solicitor Dennis Makel to provide him with the information within 24 hours.

"The real goal," he said, "is to not have lawyers between the child and the school."

Max, 7, has Down syndrome, asthma and a hearing disability. Lesneski, 47, of Buffalo, insists the school has not cooperated in providing him with medications, including an asthma puffer, or with a qualified sign-language interpreter.

Lesneski began her protest Monday after she said Max had an asthma attack at Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School. When she went to the school, she said, she was told by school officials that the district would not administer his medications this year.

Using ropes and a lawn chair, she tied herself to a flagpole at the school and said she'll stay there until the district provides her son with the proper services.

Her attorney, Pamela Berger, told Cindrich that the district has not administered the puffer and has refused to let him do it himself. She also said the district was supposed to hire and train the sign-language specialist under an agreement signed earlier this year but hasn't done so.

Makel said the district has never refused Max his medications, saying school officials didn't have prescriptions or, in some cases, couldn't read the ones they had because of a doctor's lousy handwriting.

He said an aide is being trained, but he couldn't provide the person's name.

Cindrich, frustrated by the lack of progress in getting the aide in place for the school year, ordered Makel to give him the aide's name, the details of the training and the qualifications of the trainer.

He also said he was having trouble determining the truth in the dispute. On one hand, he said, he can't seem to get a straight answer from the school district.

On the other, he said, Lesneski's passion for her child's well-being may be clouding her judgment.

"There's a responsibility to the child here," he said. "I'm not sure that this kind of disruption [the protest] is helpful."

Makel asked the judge to instruct Berger to tell Lesneski to end the protest because he said other parents were complaining about it. Cindrich said he couldn't do that, at least not without a full hearing.

Berger said after the hearing that she would ask Lesneski to go home.

Lesneski, however, said she's declined her attorney's advice and plans to continue her vigil until a contract is signed between the district and the sign-language interpreter.

"This is not in defiance of Judge Cindrich," she said. "I have signed too many agreements with the school district and I want them to introduce me to the person they hired."

She said along with the contract, she wants assurances that the aide is proficient in sign language. Then, Lesneski said, she will be happy to return home.

"I want to go home and get back to my kids," she said. "I miss my husband and home-cooked meals."

Along with a contingent of local parents of other special needs children and several representatives of Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living, a disability rights organization in Washington, Pa., Lesneski was joined yesterday by supporters from northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Georgia.

The groups traveled to Washington County to join in the protest after hearing of the demonstration, she said.

Lesneski said she has received more than 50 phone calls in support of her cause since Monday from families in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Alabama and even England.

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