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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoConnecticut 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 activities.

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 activity.

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.

For example:

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 retarded.

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 mainstream students.

"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 lawsuit settlement.

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 the day.

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 said.

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 teachers.

"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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