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Anxious parents, government policy in conflict over what's best for kids

July 28, 2000

Anxious parents, government policy in conflict over what's best for kids



"Green Eggs and Ham," the Dr. Seuss classic with the rhyming lines and the funny pictures, is something most kids learn to read before they're out of elementary school.

Theresa Rowe remembers a boy who took a little bit longer than that, a pupil at the county's Job Development Center, where students with various disabilities learn life skills and academics with youngsters who are more like them than not.

During a student assembly at JDC, the 17-year-old was given a prize for learning to read that book, Rowe said.

As the youth accepted his award, there were tears in the teachers' eyes, Rowe said, as the result of an event that wouldn't have taken place at an ordinary high school.

And what worries Rowe, chairman of the school's Citizen Advisory Committee, is that JDC and the students who might benefit from programs there in the future might be casualties of a state policy designed to help handicapped students.

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The policy is inclusion, which means providing "the least restrictive environment for each child being educated in Maryland."

As a practical matter, that policy means that, whenever possible, school officials try to place students with special needs in schools with children or normal ability. The theory is, apparently, that because they will eventually live in the adult world, they should learn early on to deal with society as it is. Instead of being shut away in a restricted environment, these youngsters are encouraged to participate as fully as possible in a regular school setting.

That's the ideal. But a couple of parents I've talked to say that while the state can mandate inclusion, it can't change the attitudes of other students. And children can be cruel, or at least insensitive.

Rowe knows. Her 17-year-old daughter, who has learning disabilities as well as impaired motor skills, was mainstreamed up until high school.

"Up until that point she was very withdrawn," Rowe said, adding that since the child came to JDC, she's become more outgoing because she realized that she's not different, because all the students there have similar needs.

In addition, Rowe said, instead of her daughter being mainstreamed into classes like biology and learning about things like cell division, JDC helps students with life skills, including everything from personal hygiene to how to cook a meal.

Kelly Whittington agrees. Her 15-year-old daughter reads on a third-grade level and also has impaired motor skills. What the girl needs, Whittington says, is not an intesive academic program, but one that will give her the skills to be a self-sufficient adult.

"They keep cutting these teacher positions, and what they are trying to do is to duplicate JDC's program in a regular high school, and that will never work," she said.

And both Rowe and Whittington say they've been told that some parents have been discouraged from placing their children at JDC.

Yes, it's an expensive facility to run, Rowe said, but wouldn't it make more sense to run it at full capacity?

The issue came to the public's attention last week when School Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr. was summoned to court to testify about possible JDC placement of a juvenile convicted of pulling false fire alarms.

But when Circuit Court Judge John H. McDowell asked Bartlett whether the school system planned to close JDC, the superintendent's answers didn't satisfy the judge.

"At best, Bartlett was evasive...at worst perjurious," McDowell said Wednesday.

It was the judge's second clash with the school system this year. In May, during a hearing for an 11-year-old accused of assaulting a teacher, McDowell said "the inclusion program has run amok..." and ruled that the boy will have "no contact with public school."

Martha Roulette, director of student services, agreed with my suggestion that what's happening is in part a clash of philosophies about what's best for these children. But, she said, state and federal mandates require the system to deliver services to children in the "least restrictive environment."

In most cases, she said, that means including them in a regular school setting, although, at times, if the parents and the team of educators evaluating the student agree, the student can go directly to JDC.

On the issue of recruiting new students, Roulette said that wouldn't be appropriate.

"Legally, we should be making that option available only when it's needed," she said.

But for those parents worried about JDC closing, Roulette said that the same mandates that press the school system to try inclusion first also require that there be other options when inclusion doesn't work, or isn't appropriate.

"We're required to have a range of different program options," she said, adding that it is possible that child's needs will change, and that "at different times in their lives, they'll need different options."

So how did the rumor about JDC closing start?

Four or five years ago, there was a proposal to consolidate programs with the Marshall Street center, Roulette said, adding that though it never happened, it might have started the persistent rumors.

Why would the school system advertise for a new principal for JDC if it were shutting down the facility, Roulette asked.

As a parent of two mentally and physically healthy children, I've had only the smallest dose of the anxiety the parents of JDC children must face, as they worry about how their kids will make their way in the world. It may not be possible to ease all their fears, but it should be possible for the school system to do a better job of communicating with them.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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