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Special schools: limiting or liberating? Baltimore County reviews approach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, the Baltimore County school system has agreed to move as many of its severely disabled students as possible out of special schools and into regular classrooms over the next 2 1/2 years.

Acting on a civil rights complaint by a parents' group, the federal education agency ruled that the county is in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to educate many of its handicapped students in "the least restrictive environment."

In a reply signed by School Superintendent Stuart Berger, the county agreed to review the cases of 580 students at three of the county's special education schools: Battle Monument, Rolling Road and The Ridge School.

And where some parents complained that they had to fight t get their handicapped children intoneighborhood schools, the federal government will now require the county to prove why a student should be kept in a special school.

The ruling is the latest round in a long battle -- in Baltimore County

and other school systems across the nation -- over how best to educate children with disabilities.

Over the last few years, the pendulum has swung toward giving disabled students as much contact as possible with normal youngsters -- in the classroom and extracurricular activities.

But the pendulum leaves in its wake another group of anguished parents who prefer the sheltered environment of special schools.

For parents who have struggled to find appropriate settings and educational plans for their disabled children -- in neighborhood schools or special schools -- it's an emotional issue. Both sides have vocal lobbying groups.

A success story

At one end of the spectrum is Julie Seeberger, a 10-year-old with Down syndrome.

She's in a regular fourth-grade class with 25 other youngsters at Fullerton Elementary School -- albeit with special aides to help her. Julie is a first at Fullerton, and by all accounts, a success story.

Her parents, who say they fought an unwilling educational bureaucracy to get her there, are happy.

Her teacher, Sue Fitch, said she was "apprehensive" when she first learned that a child with Down syndrome would be in her class.

"Now, I see her as one of the children. She has been an outstanding teacher for us," Ms. Fitch said.

Julie goes to special education classes with other handicapped fourth-graders for math and language, but she stays with her class for social studies, science, home room, gym, music and art.

Fullerton principal John Hutchinson says it's been a "big team effort" among staff, teachers, Julie's classmates, the Seebergers and Julie herself to make it the success it is.

Julie and other students in her situation have special aides who assist them when necessary.

A big condition for moving children into regular classrooms is that they will be accompanied by appropriate services, whether it be an aide, regular speech therapy or a computer.

At the other end of the spectrum is Melita Kaplan, a 12-year-old with Down syndrome.

At Battle Monument School, designed for so-called "Level 5" children who need the most help, she and other youngsters with disabilities learn in small, ungraded classes with a staff attuned to their special needs.

Her language and reading skills are far better than her doctors ever expected.

Melita's parents are happy, too. But they're worried that her school will be closed, or drained of resources as its students are transferred elsewhere.

Her father, the Rev. David Kaplan, said that his daughter is "less restricted" in a segregated school than she might be in her

neighborhood school because the facilities there allow her to move about, take messages to the office and not be confronted with discriminating or humiliating remarks.

"There should be more choices for children who are functional, but to simply eliminate Level 5 schools would be to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.

Baltimore County is one of the last jurisdictions in the metropolitan area with a substantial network of special schools for severely handicapped students.

"Traditionally, in Baltimore County, we have educated kids [with disabilities] fairly restrictively," said Marjorie Rofel, the director of special education.

"What this does for all of us," she said of the government ruling and the county's response, "is open up an opportunity to look at special schools."

For advocates of inclusion, the county's "we know best" attitude has long been a sore point.

Jane Browning, director of communication for the Association of Retarded Citizens of Maryland, said she was upset when she moved here last year from Little Rock, Ark., and the county wanted to place her son Paul, who has Down syndrome, in special classes.

He had been in regular schools in Little Rock since kindergarten.

A civil rights issue

Ms. Browning, like others who advocate inclusion, sees it as a civil rights issue: "My son is a citizen of the United States and he has a right to live his life in his community. Even though he has a disability, he is going to have to learn to get along in this world and the way you learn is by doing," she said.

She said she fought the school system and won.

"He was not going to be segregated," she declared. "The law was onmy side."

Paul is now in the third grade at Riderwood Elementary School. Ms. Browning does, however, empathize with parents who prefer the special schools.

"They are afraid of their children being singled out and humiliated. I understand people's fears. Today's parents . . . are afraid of social rejection," she said.

"But if they saw what was possible they wouldn't settle for less. I generally believe Paul's speech, vocabulary and [comprehension] are better. He has good models to imitate."

The law is paramount to the struggle, and if the law were properly implemented, there would be little struggle, says Mark Mlawer, executive director of the Maryland Coalition for Integrated Education.

The federal law

In the 1970s, Congress passed The Education of All Handicapped Children Act.

The regulations governing that law say "that to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not handicapped."

Mr. Mlawer maintains that a child can only be placed in a special school if his specific educational goals, as determined by teachers and parents, require it.

"You cannot place a child for administrative convenience, for space reasons or for lack of a curriculum," he said.

"Our agency has never taken the position that all centers should be closed. There may be a few kids out there who need to be segregated, but not the number . . . out there now."

The county has told parents that it has no immediate intention of closing any of the special education schools.

But over the last three years, it has moved 300 handicapped students into regular classrooms, and more will follow.

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