In 1973, the federal government passed a law requiring that mentally and physically handicapped students receive a "free and appropriate" public education in "the least restrictive environment." The law affirmed that far too many disabled students in confining "special education" programs ought to be in mainstream "regular" schools, alongside "regular" students.
Two decades later, many states and localities still pay little heed to this mandate. Only in the past few years has Maryland's department of education shaken its lax attitude toward the "inclusion" of special education students. And that followed a ton of pressure from Washington.
The feds have also leaned on the Baltimore County school system for not educating more of its disabled students in a "least restrictive" manner. Now, under first-year superintendent Stuart Berger, the county is moving quickly toward inclusion for as many of its special students as possible by the middle of 1995.
Too quickly, according to some parents of students at the county's six special schools. The parents say they're angry they haven't been consulted or briefed by school officials as the plans for inclusion have been crafted.
They are further upset by the prospect of their children's removal from the special schools that give them close supervision and protection from the cruel taunts of regular students. These concerns certainly are understandable.
But the evidence from inclusion efforts nationwide indicates that special students benefit markedly from their exposure to the regular school experience. Mainly, their behavior "normalizes" as they enter and move in the circle of their peers.
Studies also show that the regular students tend not to tease as much as expected. They have even been found to develop deeper awareness and understanding of the capabilities as well as the limitations of the handicapped. Another significant bonus from inclusion.
For the more severely disabled, a segregated environment will continue to be necessary. County school officials vow it will be provided. But with the available new technologies and teaching methods, and with each special student's parents insisting on their legal right to have a strong say in their child's educational plan, inclusion can work. It's a prime opportunity to help these special young people become as active and productive in the mainstream of society as they can be.