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Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2002 12:00 am

I am a school board member in a large district. I am writing regarding my concern with the inequality of discipline procedures for special education children. In a nutshell, if such a student with an IEP (a special ed student) misbehaves and it is determined that the misbehavior is a "manifestation" of their handicap, then they cannot be sent to an alternative learning center for longer than 10 days at a time and for no more than 4 times in a school year. The maximum time they can be out of the regular school setting is 40 days. These restrictions fly in the face of most school district's mandatory expulsion of one year for drug/violence and weapon offenses. What can be done?

The problem you write about is a pervasive and serious one. It is one of many associated with special education practices and policies generally. I have plenty of ideas and opinions regarding these problems but no concrete answers.

I'm afraid, the whole field of special education is rapidly becoming a problem that only King Solomon has the wisdom to solve. Before the passage of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 1975, education for children and young people with disabilities was poor to non-existent. They were excluded from even attending school in many cases. The enactment of IDEA in the mid-70's was an amazing achievement and ensured that children with severe physical and mental disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21 would have the opportunity to learn from especially trained teachers. Funding for the teachers and classes would be provided by the federal government--at least that was the premise.

Today, almost thirty years later, the bloom is off the rose. Regular education budgets are strapped and the onerous federal regulations and requirements that accompany special education laws don't come with the funding to pay for the services that are needed.

Furthermore, many parents of children with special needs have discovered that there's nothing very special about special education anymore. The individualized education plans, developed to meet the individual needs of students, are often forgotten in the rush to include the student in the regular classroom where one teacher cannot possibly deal with thirty different plans.

No wonder many classroom teachers aren't particularly happy with IDEA. How is it humanly possible for one teacher to deal with two behavior disordered students, one emotionally disturbed student, a student who is severely mentally disabled, and one who is severely physically disabled? Each one has a different individualized education plan calling for accommodations to enable that student to handle the regular classroom curricula.

Many parents of students with disabilities have been sold on the idea that if their child with disabilities attends his/her neighborhood school, he/she will develop social skills, make friends, and be better prepared for the "real world." While the social and emotional benefits argument certainly holds true for many students with disabilities, for those children with serious physical, emotional, or behavioral problems, the cons may greatly outweigh the pros.

These students pose the biggest problem because while we are giving them every benefit of every doubt, and not always holding them accountable for their behavior, their problems aren't getting better, but rather worse in many cases. While we are including students who haven't been taught to read in regular classes and making major accommodations and modifications to enable them to fit in, they aren't being taught the skills they need to survive.

Somehow we must strike a balance between excluding every child with disabilities as we once did to including every child with physical disabilities or behavioral problems as we now do. Somehow we must find a way to put the emphasis on teaching and learning - for every child -- both regular and special education. We must begin to consider the rights of the quiet, well-behaved child who is terrified to attend school because he/she doesn't feel safe in his/her elementary classroom.

Somehow we must find a way to protect the rights of the disabled and their parents without trampling on the rights of every other child and their parents. We must also consider teachers, who in many cases, are being asked to teach a group of students in which everyone must be considered individually, where everyone's assignment must be modified and accommodated, and where everyone's behavior is acceptable if it's a manifestation of their disability.

When inclusive education (i.e. including all children with disabilities in the regular classroom) came to my school district, it was touted as a benefit for everyone. In many cases I saw it as more of a benefit to the parents than the students. Parents believed their child was actually learning what he/she needed to be successful because he/she was in the "regular education classroom."

Unfortunately, educators never bothered to thoroughly research or consider the academic effects of inclusion on either special or regular education students. The original intent of special education was to teach students what they needed to be successful in the regular classroom--not totally change the expectations of the regular classroom to fit the abilities of the special education student. At this point, many politicians, educators, and special education lobbyists have lost sight of the goal--making sure that all students are learning to their potential. I wish I had a solution, but as I said earlier, this is a problem requiring wisdom like King Solomon's.

Elaine is a former teacher, librarian, principal, and district administrator. She has an Ed.D. in educational administration and is the author of more than two dozen books for parents and educators. You can visit her web site at http://www.elainemcewan.com.

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