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Crossing swords over learning disabilities

Court ruling clarifies right of private schools to insist on high

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When graduates of the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., turn their tassels this spring, one of their classmates won't be with them. After an up-and-down high school career, Nicholas Axelrod Panagopoulos ran out of chances last December, expelled by a nearly unanimous vote of the faculty after he violated academic probation.

Nicholas, who is diagnosed with an attention-deficit disorder, and his mother, Nancy Axelrod, asked a judge to reinstate him, saying the school had not done enough to accommodate his disability as required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The case illustrates the challenge private schools face in trying to balance their high standards with accommodating students with special needs. Critics say the posh schools sometimes just aren't interested in dealing with students' disabilities.

Court cases in recent years have clarified the duty of colleges and universities toward disabled students, and a 1975 law ensures them fair treatment at public schools.

But the Phillips case brings the issue into a new realm - private high schools. "A lot of parents who've had kids in private school haven't realized that they may also have some protections," says Laura Rothstein, a specialist in disability law at the University of Houston in Texas. "As a lot of states move toward trying voucher programs and charter schools ... this whole recognition of the degree to which accommodation of disabilities plays out in private schools is going to be coming to the surface more."

US District Court Judge Edward Harrington decided Tuesday to let Nicholas's expulsion stand. A jury will have an opportunity this summer to decide if Phillips Academy should have to pay damages.

Many private schools are still in the learning stages about how to help students diagnosed with disabilities, says Jeanne Kincaid, a New Hampshire lawyer who focuses on disability law in education. But she says it appears Phillips Academy administrators had a clearer understanding than most.

DURING Nicholas's time at Phillips, the school provided him with extra tutoring, gave him a laptop computer to help him complete assignments, and waived his foreign-language requirement (considered especially difficult for some students with ADD).

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