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Agreement Reprieves Fernald for 1 Year

September 28, 1986|BARBARA BAIRD | Times Staff Writer

Parents who have conducted a seven-month campaign to save UCLA's Fernald School are celebrating an "agreement in principle" by which the university will reopen the school for the learning-handicapped for one year.

Spokesmen for the university and for parents said Thursday that they expect Fernald to reopen this week.

Parent spokesman Michael Cornwell said the agreement is "quite a victory" for Friends of Fernald, a group organized in February to fight UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young's decision to close the 65-year-old school for youngsters with learning disabilities.

Parents were notified in a Feb. 19 letter from John D. O'Connor, UCLA dean of life sciences, that the university planned to close the school June 30.

O'Connor said that Fernald was being closed because other schools offer similar programs. The closure would allow Fernald's funds to be diverted to the university for research on childhood disabilities, he said.

But parents, outraged that they had been given only 4 1/2 months notice to look for new schools, said Fernald's teaching and research have provided an irreplaceable opportunity for their children, some so severely handicapped that they cannot attend public school.

Fernald parents first took their case to the University of California Board of Regents, which declined to overrule Young's decision.

Then they filed suit in Santa Monica Superior Court claiming that the closure violated the students' rights to equal educational opportunity.

On Aug. 28 Judge Richard G. Harris ruled that the school should reopen until the lawsuit was resolved, but a week later the university appealed the decision, leaving the school's fate in limbo while legal questions were debated by opposing attorneys.

Attorneys for both sides reached an "agreement in principle" by which UCLA will continue to offer programs this year for students who attended Fernald last spring, said university spokesman Harlan Lebo.

The agreement provides that the school will close in June, 1987, he said.

The one-year reprieve will give parents time to find another location for Fernald off the UCLA campus, said James R. Lahana, an attorney representing Fernald parents.

Under the agreement, if UCLA keeps Fernald open this year, parents will withdraw the lawsuit and claims for damages, Lebo said.

UCLA Prof. Frank Hewett, a former Fernald teacher who has been appointed the school's interim director, said parents of Fernald's 65 to 70 students have been contacted about the expected reopening. About 25 expressed an interest in resuming having their children resum attendance, he said.

A new teaching staff has been assembled, because all of the former teachers (including 12 full-time employees) have found other work since their jobs were eliminated by UCLA, Hewett said.

Last June actor Paul Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, offered to pay Fernald's operating expenses for one year, which they estimated at $100,000, if Young would keep the school open, but Young declined the offer.

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