School Districts Receive Warning
At issue is the education of the mentally retarded.
by Penelope Overgon, The Courant, August 19, 2003
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The impact of a landmark, class-action lawsuit involving the
rights of mentally retarded schoolchildren will be felt in a
number of Connecticut schools this fall.
The state Department of Education has warned 38 school districts
that they have labeled an unusually high number of minority
students as mentally retarded or have failed to educate enough
mentally retarded students in mainstream classrooms. Employing
incentives rather than sanctions for now, the state also is
monitoring whether mentally retarded students are attending
neighborhood schools or taking part in extracurricular
In Connecticut, black girls are five times as likely to be
identified as mentally retarded than white boys, according to
state data. In Stamford, blacks represent about half of the
district's mentally retarded, but only a quarter of the student
body. In Middletown, black students account for 43.5 percent of
children identified as mentally retarded but only 26.8 percent
of its general population.
Bristol put all of its mentally retarded students in segregated
classes last year. In New Britain, fewer than half of mentally
retarded students attended neighborhood schools. Not one of
Stamford's mentally retarded students joined an extracurricular
Although warnings were issued to several large, poor city
districts, such as Hartford and New Haven, the list of targeted
districts includes a handful of wealthy suburbs, including
Farmington, Glastonbury and West Hartford.
"We have made inclusive education a priority in Connecticut,"
said Anne Louise Thompson, a state special education consultant.
"Some school districts are digging in their heels, but others
are excited. Either way, it's going to happen."
Though some activists say little progress has been made since
the federal lawsuit known as P.J. vs. State of Connecticut was
settled in 2001, the state warnings have prompted some districts
to change the way the mentally retarded will be identified and
educated in the coming school year.
New Haven is razing a special education school and replacing it
with an inclusive elementary school.
Enfield is disbanding most of its segregated special needs
programs and returning two dozen mentally retarded students to
neighborhood schools. The district will use two psychologists
instead of one to determine whether a child is mentally
In Middletown and a number of other districts, staff members and
parents of mentally retarded children have attended state
"summits" on how to reduce racial bias in labeling children.
Participants will be educating other staff members about it.
Thompson said the over-identification of black and Hispanic
students as mentally retarded arose late in the federal lawsuit,
so progress probably will take much longer than the move to
"What you're seeing is a lag," Thompson said. "It was late
coming up in the lawsuit and it's just now hitting the radar
screen for local districts. They've heard us talking about
mainstreaming for years. ...With identification, we're back to
square one, trying to educate and persuade."
The targeted districts will have to show steady progress toward
mainstreaming and reducing the number of black and Hispanic
students identified as mentally retarded. There are no sanctions
now other than bad publicity, but in time, the state could
withhold special education money from the worst violators of the
David Shaw of Bloomfield, the lawyer representing 3,500 mentally
retarded students in the lawsuit, said there has been no real
change by school districts. Mentally retarded students remain
isolated, neglected and forgotten, he said.
"The state has made it clear a change in approach and attitude
is needed," Shaw said. "But down in the trenches, where the real
decisions about a child's education and life are made,
absolutely nothing has changed."
One of his clients is Cherina Watson, a black, mentally retarded
Middletown girl who had her reading class taken away and was put
to work in the lunchroom. Cherina talked about her experiences
in U.S. District Court in Hartford last year.
"I didn't want to be in special [education] class because I felt
bad because people be cracking on me," Cherina told the judge.
When asked why she wanted to be put in a regular classroom, she
said: "Because I know I could do it."
Eight districts deemed the worst offenders were warned by the
state last year. The state delivered stern letters to the rest
of the 38 targeted districts in February and April and followed
up with state-funded training, intensive monitoring and grants.
Twenty-four districts are eligible for grants of up to $50,000
if they complete an action plan that spells out how they intend
to improve. Thirty-four districts targeted for biased labeling
are eligible for up to $5,000 each.
Not everybody's interested in the carrot, however. Norwalk, for
example, has not submitted the application for the $50,000
grant, which was due in June.
The lawsuit argued that Connecticut was guilty of violating the
federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975,
which requires all but the most severely disabled to be educated
with non-disabled children in a regular classroom.
The U.S. Department of Education has traditionally chastised
Connecticut for its low inclusion rates. Five years ago,
Connecticut placed only 9.2 percent of children with mental
retardation in regular classrooms for more than 79 percent of
That rose to 11.6 percent last year. In comparison, Vermont
places at least six out of 10.
Research shows that mentally retarded children can participate
and learn in regular classroom settings with proper support,
such as a teaching aide, short breaks or verbal instruction, and
their inclusion does not interfere with instruction to
non-disabled students, Thompson said.
The research also shows that mental retardation does not occur
in any one race, ethnicity or gender more than any other, which
means the demographics of a district's mentally retarded
students should reflect that of the overall population, she
The bias issue is a particularly difficult and potentially
explosive one for school districts. Donna Gittleman, Enfield's
special education director, scoured the data for a pattern that
might reveal a misguided teacher or school, but found none.
"The good news was there was no pattern, but that's also the bad
news because it means there's no quick fix," Gittleman said.
"You can't just stop identifying kids. They need services. To
deny someone that because of color would be unconscionable."
Middletown officials attended training to reduce bias, but they
suggest that the blame for their high rate of identifying
minority students may lie in a state manual on how to determine
who is mentally retarded.
"We follow state guidelines for every student. Maybe they need
to change the guidelines," said Mariann Rossi-Ondusky ,
Middletown's director of pupil services.
Shaw said he is waiting for an expert advisory panel created by
the settlement to evaluate the state progress before he
considers whether to ask U.S. District Court Judge Robert N.
Chatigny to force compliance with the settlement.
The court has jurisdiction over the settlement only for eight
years, he noted. That, coupled with the planned departure of
Theodore S. Sergi as state education commissioner, seen by Shaw
as a supporter, leaves the lawyer feeling skeptical.
Shaw said his clients are still facing the same entrenched
attitudes about mental retardation as 10 or 15 years ago. Many
schools still try to bully parents into sending their child to
segregated classes in distant schools, he said.
These classes may be equipped with specialized teachers and
technology, he said, but they lack role models necessary for
students to learn the proper social behaviors needed to live and
work in the non-disabled world.
The real change won't happen until the grant money starts to
flow, district officials say. For example, Hartford already has
completed a voluntary, school-by-school survey of special
education services, but it needs state grant money to act.
The district has plans to pull some mentally retarded students
back into a local school, said Jody Lefkowitz, the district's
senior director for exceptional children, but most of the
district's ongoing plans focus on professional development for
"You can put them in the classroom, but you need to provide them
with all they need to succeed," Lefkowitz said. "That means
general education teachers trained to reach all learners. It's a
slow, long process, but we have started."
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