Leigh Jones, The Daily News, February 10,
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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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