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Last Updated: 11/20/2017
 

District Connects Lead with Special Ed

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Leigh Jones, The Daily News, February 10, 2008

GALVESTON — Galveston Independent School District has too many African-American students in its special education program, a problem that has earned the island’s schools extra scrutiny from the Texas Education Agency.

But local administrators think they might have discovered a legitimate reason for a higher-than-average number of students needing extra help in the classroom.

A Baylor College of Medicine report released last year revealed that about 20 percent of Galveston children tested for lead had elevated levels of the environmental toxin in their blood.

The highest numbers of lead poisoning cases were recorded in areas of the city with predominantly poor, African-American residents, something school officials want the state to consider when evaluating Galveston’s special education enrollment.

While lead damage is irreversible, experts say children can recover with intensive educational therapy, prompting local officials to suggest a program of universal lead screening to identify students who need special assistance before it’s too late.

Galveston schools have more African-American students in their special education programs than the state standard by almost 12 percentage points and almost 9 percentage points more than the state average.

On the island, there’s a 12.7 percentage point difference between the total number of African-American students in the district and those in special education.

Statewide, the difference between enrollment and special education classification is 3.8 percent.

The state standard is 1 percent.

Mary Patrick, the district’s executive director of special services, told the school board in December that she was shocked to discover that the island’s level of lead contamination could be contributing to the numbers of students struggling in school.

Lead poisoning causes permanent brain damage and is linked to attention deficit disorders and learning disabilities.

Two-thirds of the island’s housing stock was built before the federal government banned the use of lead in residential paint.

While a majority of those houses likely have traces of lead contamination, the toxin has the potential to cause the most damage in houses that have had little or no maintenance throughout the years, a common problem for low-income families.

Patrick told school board members she planned to send the report to state officials as an explanation of why so many Galveston students were in the special education program.

But the findings are not likely to give the district a pass on state scrutiny.

Kathy Clayton, senior director for the division of the state’s education agency that ensures compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, said Galveston’s problem was not so much caused by the numbers of students in special education but by the lack of early intervention plans.

“One of the things that has been true for the state and probably for Galveston is that, for a long time, special education (programs have) seemed to be the answer to a whole lot of things,” she said. “The program was not meant to be that.”

Clayton said that, most of the time, the problem wasn’t that students were incorrectly identified as needing to be in the special education program. The problem was that those students could receive help much sooner, if their learning difficulties were diagnosed at a younger age.

“The screenings need to be done very early, in kindergarten and first grade,” she said. “Then, teachers can apply very intense, targeted instruction to those areas and watch how students are progressing. We don’t want to wait until the student is failing.”

Although Clayton said she did not know anything about the effects of lead poisoning, her description of an early intervention program matched the recommendations of researchers for overcoming the toxin’s damage.

Members of the screening, reporting and case management subcommittee of Galveston’s Lead Task Force are suggesting a goal of having all island children screened for lead at 12 months and 24 months old, as required for children receiving state or federally funded health care.

But Winifred J. Hamilton, author of the Baylor report, and Wayne Snodgrass, a pharmacology professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a member of the National Committee on Lead Poisoning and Prevention, would like to see a more aggressive approach — mandatory lead testing for all children before they start school.

If children with lead poisoning could be identified in their first year of school and given special instruction to overcome the problems lead is known to cause, they would have a better chance of staying out of special education classes later in their academic careers.

Galveston school board Trustee Weez Doherty suggested a universal testing program to school officials in December and pressed Patrick to give her opinion on its potential efficacy.

Patrick said only that testing every child in the district would be expensive and that it was not possible to force parents to have their child tested.

Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said that a statewide program of universal lead testing would have to be authorized by a new statute.

But, he said it looked as if local entities could create their own mandatory testing program, although it would be up to a school district or city legal adviser to investigate its authority to start a local program.

If a universal testing plan has not been tried before, McBride said one might have to be challenged in state court before anyone could say for sure whether it was allowed under existing laws.

Doherty suggested the district could use some of the resources targeted for early intervention to start a lead testing program and identify the students officials know will need extra help.

“If we have the means and the technology to do it and this will help these children, I think we should do it,” she said.

 

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