Unlike most students who graduate from high school at age 17 or 18, students with significant special needs can remain in the school system until they are 21. But until recently, those students - even if they attended their community schools - were not allowed to participate in all the activities connected with their senior year, including going to the prom and walking across the stage during the graduation ceremony.
The Special Education Community Advisory Committee worked to change that, and in November, a new policy was announced: Children with special needs could participate in all graduation ceremonies, even if they were not going to leave school after the events. Instead of receiving a diploma, they would get a certificate of attendance.
That change, which allows students with special needs to be included in general education activities, is typical of the policies that the Special Education Community Advisory Committee (SECAC) works to bring to the Howard County school system.
"The ultimate goal of special education is to have adults grow up and be part of the community," said Ben Dorman, the committee's chairman. "There are many children who have significant intellectual disabilities who are placed in their community schools."
On Tuesday, SECAC will hold its annual meeting with Sydney L. Cousin, the county's superintendent of schools, to ask questions and discuss issues of concern to the group. The meeting, scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Faulkner Ridge Center in Columbia, is open to the public.
"This is something we do on an annual basis," Cousin said. "I meet with this group at least once a year to talk about common interests and concerns involving the delivery of special-education services in the county."
SECAC, which has an eight-member executive board of parents and professionals, was founded in 1996 by the school system's department of special education. Its mission is to help the administration meet the needs of students who needed special education.
"The issues always change," Dorman said. "But in general, we advocate for children with special needs in the Howard County school system."
Special education is a term that applies to a wide range of student services, from specialized instruction in general education classrooms, often guided by Individualized Education Programs (IEPs,) as well as students attending Cedar Lane School, which serves students aged 3 through 21 with severe disabilities, generally physical.
Dorman became involved with the group in 1996, he said, shortly after learning that his son, now 15, had autism. At the time, he was serving on the county's autism board, and the new committee was being formed. One of Dorman's earliest causes was arguing that the school system needed to devote more hours to treating autism in young students. Dorman's son received five hours of service a week, he said. Now, students with autism receive 18 hours a week.
In 2005, the state established a requirement that all school systems must have special-education advisory councils. But while many other counties have councils with committee members appointed by the superintendent, SECAC is independent and chooses its members, said Michael Klatzkin, who was chairman of the committee from 2005 to 2007 and is still involved.
Klatzkin said the group, in addition to advocating for students, serves as a "conduit" that helps parents find the right people to help get the best education for their special-needs children. Klatzkin, whose 13-year- old son has disabilities and has been receiving services since he was about 3, said he has seen many changes in the way the county serves students with special needs, with changes generally in the direction of more inclusion in general education classrooms.
SECAC is working on recommendations to help children with learning disabilities and ADHD, so that they, too, can succeed in general education classrooms, he said.
"What we're looking at is finding a way to make sure these children are taught in a manner that allows them to learn," Klatzkin said. "What we did was, we recommended that the school system had a way to make sure that these kids who aren't so far off the norm, learn in those general classrooms by teachers who understand how to teach to these kids."
The school system has been responsive, he said.
Dorman, who was also chairman of the group from 1999 to 2001, noted that SECAC does not work solely with special-education officials. Committee representatives will testify at school budget hearings Jan. 22 and meet with the Board of Education in March, he said.
Dorman noted that SECAC's conversations with Cousin and with other school officials not specifically connected to special education are important because issues related to special education permeate the entire learning community. "You can't achieve your goals just by talking to the special-education people," he said.
"We regard ourselves as advisors to the Board of Education, not just to the department of special education," he said. He expects the meeting with Cousin to be productive. "The guy at the top is the guy who sets the vision," he said.
SECAC's meeting with Cousin is open to the public. To submit a question, e-mail ann email@example.com or call the Family Support and Resource Center, 410 313-7161.