January 4, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Since a court settlement opened regular classrooms in Connecticut to hundreds of special education students, the number of mentally retarded children in regular classrooms has tripled - increasing to 34 percent since 2002, a state report says.
Those numbers include children such as 12-year-old Erik Hultgren, who has Down syndrome and had been placed in a separate class as a first-grader but has been in regular classes since then. He now is in sixth grade at the Dag Hammarskjold School in Wallingford.
"Without that [legal settlement], Erik would not be where he is today," Kristin Hultgren, his mother, said. "It was not easy at first, but through hard work on the part of the school and Erik ...[he] is extremely successful."
The numbers, however, fall short of goals recommended by an expert advisory panel established under the court settlement - and much remains to be done, three members of that panel told the State Board of Education Wednesday.
"We are particularly concerned about the number of school systems that are not making progress," said W. Alan Coulter, a professor at the Louisiana State University Medical Center.
The settlement, which is limited to mentally retarded children - also referred to in the case as intellectually disabled - was the result of a lawsuit, P.J. vs. State of Connecticut, filed by a West Hartford parent.
Educators across Connecticut are still adjusting to the ramifications of a 2002 court settlement that requires the state to ensure compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - a law requiring schools to educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms whenever possible.
Coulter, along with two other panel members - Indiana University education Professor Leonard Burrello and University of Kansas disability specialist Wayne Sailor - said that some school districts have made progress, but others have felt threatened by the settlement and have resisted.
In one case, Coulter said, a superintendent "basically told me you can't tell her what to do."
Coulter praised the state's effort to offer technical help to school districts and urged state officials to use what he called "woodshed meetings" to prod lagging districts to comply with the court settlement.
The panel also said that some barriers continue to hinder efforts to bring more disabled students into the mainstream, including the existence of separate programs for disabled students operated by regional education service centers, such as the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford.
However, that criticism is a "gross misunderstanding" of the role of those centers, said Bruce Douglas, the council's executive director.
The agency, Douglas said, does provide some separate services for profoundly handicapped children, "but the majority of the time, children are in the mainstream school."
His agency operates under strict guidelines of the court settlement as monitored by the state, Douglas said.
David Shaw, the attorney who represented P.J., said that intellectually disabled students historically were the most segregated of all children with disabilities - initially committed to institutions and later admitted to mainstream schools but segregated in special classrooms. The settlement calls for integrating the students in regular classrooms with appropriate support to ensure their success.
However, since the settlement, suburban schools have done little to integrate the youngsters while large, urban districts, under pressure from the state, have dumped children in regular classrooms without training teachers or giving the students the support they need, Shaw said.
"You have teachers being confronted with students with a broad range of disabilities that they don't know how to deal with," Shaw said.
"If they get the support they need, the children are typically satisfied and the teachers are satisfied."
That is what happened in Erik Hultgren's case, his mother said.
"He's learning what all the other children are learning, and he is ... completely accepted for who he is. He has a lot of friends," she said. "It's the teachers who rolled up their sleeves and made it happen."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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