by Dave Groves, The Daily Oakland Press, 08/04/2003
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Shari Krishnan drove about 600 miles from Oakland County to
Washington, D.C., this weekend to battle a fear in her heart.
Sharing the journey was her son, Nick, an 11-year-old student
Armed with a ream of printed facts, figures and information,
Krishnan planned to shower federal lawmakers with reasons that
they should abandon plans to overhaul the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act.
Proposed changes to the 28-year-old federal legislation have
raised the ire and angst of not only Krishnan, but also parents
and advocates across the country.
They say lawmakers threaten to reverse decades of educational
advances for students with disabilities in America's public
schools, including considerable integration of students with the
general education population.
"I think the big fear we have under the (proposed) discipline
provisions is that kids could be easily sent away to other
facilities," Krishnan said.
"The fear of resegregation is real, and that's what I'm feeling
for my son."
Under provisions in a bill approved in the U.S. House and
another yet to be considered by the full U.S. Senate, students
with disabilities could be punished - up to and including
expulsion - for behavior caused by a disability.
The Bush administration and predominantly Republican supporters
argue the proposed changes would ensure school safety by placing
fewer restrictions on educators looking to control behavior in
Tricia Luker, a Royal Oak advocate for people with disabilities,
is among those who see things differently.
"I think a lot of the bill is geared toward making things easier
administratively and not toward what's in the best interest of
the kids," she said.
Current law dictates that school officials determine whether a
student's disability is contributing to a behavior problem. If
so, administrators must develop a plan to elicit more acceptable
behavior and keep the student in his or her current educational
Luker argues that the legislative focus on strict disciplinary
policies and school safety is overshadowing sensible and fair
discourse on how to deal with behavior problems among students
"I think everybody is scared to death that another Columbine
will happen, but we need to remember the kids involved in that
were not special education kids," she said.
Luker and other advocates do not suggest that special education
students should be treated differently from general education
students if inappropriate behavior is not related to a
While preserving disciplinary protections in current law appears
to be a top concern among parents and advocates, a host of
academic issues closely follow that.
To varying degrees, proposed changes to the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act in both the House and Senate seek to
streamline administrative and due process paperwork, increase
academic rigor in special education programs and reduce
misidentification of special education students.
Kathy Golinsky, director of special education for Oakland
Schools, said federal regulations detailing the rights of
students with disabilities have prompted a cumbersome system of
documentation. Much of this, she said, is related to the
time-consuming process of developing an individual education
plan for each student in the system.
"When you need to distribute a nine-page document for every
(individual education plan) and every meeting to all the people
involved, it just becomes a lot of documentation," she said. "We
have some parents who say they could wallpaper their house with
Current law stipulates that an individual education plan be
developed at least once a year, though parents can ask to have
the plan updated at any time. Proposed revisions would change
the statutorial time frame to once every three years.
Also proposed is elimination of short-term goals now required
with individual education plans.
"It's incredible that we would even think that we could measure
the progress of any 13-year-old student with a three-year review
and no short-term goals," said Calvin Luker, Tricia Luker's
husband and fellow advocate for people with disabilities.
Some opposed to documentation reductions say the push for them
likely stems from the fact that collaborative educational
planning efforts can sometimes be contentions.
But the amount of paperwork done on behalf of special education
students is not unprecedented in public education, said Liz
Bauer, a Michigan Board of Education member and parent of an
adult child with a developmental disability.
"I don't know any special education teacher, and I was one, that
has more paperwork than your average high school English
teacher," she said.
"And as far as that goes, paperwork is not a creation of the law
- it's a creation of the districts."
School administrators acknowledge that the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act does not require voluminous
documentation, but argue they rely on documentation to protect
themselves against lawsuits over delivery of educational
Golinsky said that in Oakland County 90 percent or more of
parents with children in the special education system have
excellent working relationships with both local school district
administrators and the Oakland Schools.
"It's like we're documenting ourselves to death for the sake of
the 10 percent of folks who don't have trusting relationships,"
"On the other hand, I understand that some parents feel they
need (documentation) to ensure that their children are getting
the services they deserve," she added.
"I'm personally torn over which way is the best to ensure that
folks get their rights protected. Really, I think we need to
work on building up those trust relationships."
Outside the meeting rooms of local school districts, many
parents and advocates have been pressed to trust federal
lawmakers who've moved proposed legislation through the House.
Representatives have been criticized for a lack of opportunity
to comment on the proposed changes, as well as a lack of
bipartisan backing for the proposed legislative overhaul.
Perhaps most egregious, opponents of the changes say, was a memo
distributed among federal lawmakers accusing parents and
advocates of spreading inaccurate information to thwart reform.
The memo hasn't thwarted activists who plan to lobby both U.S.
House and Senate members in the next month, however. Proposed
changes are expected to go before the full Senate in September.
Both educators and advocates of students with disabilities say
the bill before the Senate less severely affects special
education programs than the House version. But because it still
compromises the rights of students, they plan to make their
"Hopefully, we won't have a committee member whispering in their
other ear, 'This parent is a liar, that parent's a liar,'"
Calvin Luker said.
"I mean, that's pretty insulting when you stop and think about
Bauer said advocates' best hope is to win a highly favorable
version of proposed changes in the Senate and then lobby to see
that compromises made with the House will affect student rights
as minimally as possible.
"I don't think we can count on the status quo at all," Bauer
said. "I just hope (lawmakers) will consider the worth and value
of every individual as they go about this."
This biggest challenge advocates have yet to overcome, Bauer
argued, is the influence of paid lobbyists representing school
Referring to the memo distributed among federal lawmakers, Bauer
said: "The parents and children most affected have little time
or resources to counter the organized lobbyists. It becomes even
tougher when we and our children are discounted and marginalized
by members of Congress themselves."
Calvin Luker said there is hope in the long run that students
with disabilities can win a fair shake legislatively, primarily
because a growing number of people are seeing the benefits both
special education and general education students gain by sharing
time in the same classrooms.
"Just like there are a million students who have benefited
directly from IDEA, there are also a million general education
students who have benefited by working with them," he said.
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