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Article of Interest - IDEA

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Bridges4Kids LogoFighting for kids
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 with autism.

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 the classroom.

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 environment.

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 with disabilities.

"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 disability.

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 it."

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 services.

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," she said.

"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 voices heard.

"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 it."

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 administrators.

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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