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Integration - don't take it for granted.


This is a story about education. This is a story about what can happen when we take our kids' education for ranted. This is a story about the power of parents pulling together for kids and of the public agencies that have helped them.

Our story began six years ago, as we were preparing for our daughter to enter kindergarten. When we looked at Lynn, we saw a young girl with a good sense of humor, who was quick to learn despite her physical disabilities and her difficult-to-understand speech. We knew that Lynn would need the same educational opportunities that her brothers and sister would take for granted.

Successful integration

A year before Lynn began kindergarten, we began working with our school district, talking with the principal and teachers at our neighborhood school. We found people excited to educate our daughter in her own school, ready to accept the challenge of "full integration" of a student with severe physical disabilities.

Lynn succeeded. Her teachers succeeded. We were pleased that she could do so well. She passed science tests covering the same concepts that her classmates learned. There were times that it was difficult, and we needed to problem-solve with the staff.

Lynn could not fully participate in every activity, yet she enjoyed herself and benefited from being involved with her classmates. Adaptations were made which allowed her to do work as independently as possible. She learned to use the computer through a scanning program for her writing. A paraprofessional helped her with self-care, and modified work for her. Lynn made friends with the students in her class, and she learned. Lynn's friends called her on the phone, came to the house and invited her to their parties. What more could we want ! As Lynn succeeded, other families asked how to enroll their children in neighborhood schools, ensuring proper supports, rather than in the classroom for students with "multiple disabilities." A quiet revolution had begun in our local district. Not all students attended their neighborhood schools. Not all students attended special education classes with "available mainstreaming." Decisions about where a child attended school were made on an individual basis, looking carefully at what each child needed for success. The promise of P.L. 94-142 was being realized ! New Policy Segregates

Last summer, between Lynn's third and fourth school years, things changed. Under the direction of the school district administration, the local school board approved a policy that designated a single elementary school as the attendance school for all students with severe" disabilities. Adherence to the policy would have forced Lynn and three other students to change schools. The policy decision would assign students to a school based upon category of "disability" rather than individual needs. When we first heard of the new policy, we tried to remain calm. The policy was in direct contradiction to P.L. 94-142 and seemed to be illegal.

The parents of the affected students contacted each other. We also contacted the Colorado Department of Education, the Legal Center for Persons with Handicaps and the state Parent Information Center. We began to collect information about "integration" and P.L. 94-142. We talked about the reasons our children were attending their neighborhood schools. We began to worry. We worried that the school district plan would take effect and the education we had all worked for would be lost.

Stress Leads to Action

The stress of that summer was incredible. We had trouble sleeping and experienced nightmares when we did sleep. The intensity of emotion was unbelievable. To see our children's education changed so drastically, for no apparent reason, triggered feelings of frustration and anger that equalled the reaction to the initial diagnosis of a disability Family life suffered as we spent any free time reading P.L. 94-142, reading articles about successful integration and discussing how to ensure that our children's education would continue in their neighborhood schools.

We contacted different members of the school district administration. We talked with the special education director, the director of elementary education, the superintendent, and members of the board of education. Every administrator met us with resistance. One school board member said, "I know that your daughter is learning at her neighborhood school - that's not the point." Reasons for moving the students from their neighborhood schools included better building accessibility, more highly-trained teachers and consolidation of resources at the centralized facility.

Finally, the school district contacted us officially, inviting us to a "change of location" meeting. At this meeting, the special education director told us of the new school district policy, and stated that the staffing team had met and determined that a change of schools would not violate any IEP. He said that our children would be able to transfer voluntarily to the new school and start in September, or would be transferred after the next staffing.

Parents: NO"

The parents said "NO," using the opportunity to educate the staffing team to the provision of P.L. 94-142 which stated:

"Each child will be educated in the school he or she would normally attend, if not handicapped, unless the child's IEP requires some other arrangement."

The parents of the affected students talked to their staffing teams about their family values of normalcy for their child with a disability, the friendships their sons or daughters had made and the academic progress the children had shown. Parents told the staffing team that the final decision about each child's education belonged with the staffing team - that a misguided school board policy could not be carried out without staffing team approval.

Although each parent left the "change of location" meeting with the understanding that their child would start the year in the neighborhood school, tensions were high. We felt that it was just a matter of time until each individual staffing team met and the process to move our children would begin. The parents continued to meet, offering common support and generating ideas on how to fight the school district's next move.

In meeting with school district representatives, an interesting pattern emerged. Those who knew our children best, their teachers and therapists, generally favored the education available in the neighborhood school. Those who had intermittent contact did not always have a strong opinion, those who "could not recognize our children in a line-up" favored the centralized school.

As school started in September, it was obvious that the children had lost much over the summer. Attitudes had changed drastically during those three months. The school administration had succeeded in intimidating some teachers who stated that neighborhood schools were appropriate. Some teachers worried that they could lose their jobs if they supported the concept of integration.

Many people were surprised to see our children enrolled in the local school. They had been told that they "would receive a better education" at the centralized facility. Teachers were told by administrators that the students with disabilities would be moved as soon as staffing could be arranged, that the students were attending the neighborhood school only because their parents had objected to the plan. Parents were portrayed as unrealistic and too emotionally involved with their children. The open communication and problem-solving between school and home had been shattered.

Parents Petition School Board

Two weeks after the start of school, the parents petitioned the school board for a private meeting in which we could talk openly about our children and the new policy. Because we felt that administrators had misrepresented our children and manipulated the situation, we asked that no administrators be present during the meeting. In an unprecedented move, the board granted our request.

To prepare for the meeting, we made posters that demonstrated our children's lives. The posters pictured our children playing with friends, showed typical school work and awards, and contained letters of support for integration from classmates and their parents. We presented each board member with a packet of information containing research articles in support of "natural proportion" integration and information that told of the friendships and lifelong values that integration promoted. Each parent told board members a little about their child and the reasons for attending the neighborhood school. We talked of the importance of trust between the school and parents, and of the shattering of open communication. We talked of how the future is built on the present; having a future that is as normal as possible can only happen when the present is as normal as possible. We talked of the different realities that we have faced: the optimistic reality in which our children achieve their potential, and the pessimistic reality in which the disability defines the child and his future. Assigning our children to a classroom, based upon their disability, was forcing us to accept the pessimistic reality, rather than actively pursue the optimistic possibilities. Despite our careful preparation for the meeting, nothing changed for our children.

Parents Fight On

We continued to contact our Department of Education for advice. The Department of Education could provide us with information about the state and federal laws and advise us of our procedural safeguards. Unfortunately, in our state the Department of Education has no real power over local school administrations. Their work is advisory in nature, unless a complaint about compliance is sent to them. The parents in our district preferred to try to work with the Department of Education and the local district, establishing a cooperative rather than adversarial relationship.

We contacted our children's teachers, attempting to reestablish the positive contacts of previous years. Communication with many teachers was strained, since teachers felt administrative pressure to advocate for centralized programs for our children. It appeared that the school administration had established an unspoken policy of allowing our children to fail in their respective classes, to prove the need to move them to a centralized program.

The school district appeared to be moving ahead with its strategy of using "change of placement" staffings to move our kids to the new school. The first student to be staffed was thoroughly tested by teachers and therapists. Both the school district and the student were represented by attorneys. The staffing lasted three grueling days and resulted in the student remaining in his neighborhood school. Ironically, the P.L. 94-142 provisions for "adequate" vs. "best" educational opportunities protected the neighborhood placement. The school district claimed that the centralized placement was better, though the student was making measurable progress in his neighborhood school.

No matter when the next staffings are completed, our story will not end. We have learned some valuable lessons from our experience of the past six months. We have learned that no matter how well things seem to be going, we can never be complacent about our children's education. We can never relax, assured that teachers and administrators fully support integration of students with disabilities. Some teachers will always accept our children, others will need to be educated about the importance of their task. Although laws like P.L. 94-142 and the Americans with Disabilities Act can help, there is a thin "attudinal line" that separates the education of the 90s from that of twenty years ago.

One Person is All it Takes

As the story of the new policy to move students to a centralized facility emerged, it became obvious that the policy had been engineered by a single school district official. We were amazed that a single person in a position of leadership could effect such a drastic change in our children's education. We were heartened by the many staffing team members who did speak out in behalf of our children, advocating for the benefits of integrated education.

Some members encouraged us to continue to assert our children's rights. The support provided by the Colorado Legal Center for Persons with Handicaps added clout to our resolve to keep our children in their neighborhood schools, learning with their friends. We hope our children continue to demonstrate that integration can be a good choice. As other children enter the district, we would gladly help their parents ensure an integrated education.

The process of fighting for the education that we took for granted has made us realize how precious a good education is for our children. The events of the past months caused us to look at our values and clearly communicate our personal reasons for choosing to have our children educated in the neighborhood schools. The need to fight for our children's education may end tomorrow or next month. Our job of advocating for the best quality of life for our children will never end.
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Title Annotation:integrating students with severe physical disabilities
Author:Robison, Anne Q.; Robison, Gregory A.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Jason goes to junior high.
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