November 16, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
In a blunt report to be released today, the state office that advocates for people with disabilities calls for shutting down the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy, saying students with learning disabilities and behavior problems are dumped at the school and left to languish.
The Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities launched an investigation of the school in early 2004 following allegations of inappropriate seclusion and physical abuse of students by staff members.
But district administrators barred state investigators from the building. By the time a federal court order forced the school to open its doors, the school had ceased the practice of physically restraining children, the report says.
"If we accomplished nothing else through this investigation, at least it was a catalyst for change in the restraint policy," said James D. McGaughey, executive director of the protection and advocacy office. "We're pleased that changed."
But the report found other problems at the school, including a weak, unimaginative academic program; a lack of therapeutic services; and a lack of protocol for admitting students who transfer from other schools.
The school, on Washington Street, serves middle and high school special education students who are violent or emotionally disturbed or have a history of negative behavior. Some of the students have served time in adult prison or in juvenile detention centers.
The call for the school's closure comes as the school district is already under scrutiny for moving thousands of special education students into regular education classrooms to comply with federal law.
So McGaughey and state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein cautioned that any students remaining in the special program should be phased into mainstream classrooms with a detailed plan to help them succeed - and with intensive training for their teachers.
"To be dumped once is bad enough," McGaughey said. "You don't want to compound the problem by dumping them back."
Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry said he could not address specific findings because he had not had time to study the report.
He said he shares the philosophy of including special education students in regular classes whenever possible, pointing to the ambitious mainstreaming program underway. About 70 of the learning academy's 169 students have been returned to their regular schools as part of that plan.
But Henry said he has no plans to close the learning academy because he believes it is the best place for the students who remain there. Henry said his staff is studying ways to improve the program.
"I truly believe HTLA is providing a valuable service to the students and to the Hartford school district," Henry said.
McGaughey disagreed. In 1978, the report notes, when the learning academy first opened in a different location, the federal entitlement for all children to have a free, appropriate education regardless of their disabilities was just 3 years old.
"Most parents at that time were grateful that youngsters presenting a high level of behavioral difficulty could be offered instruction in any public school at all," the report states.
At the time, educators believed that students who needed more intense services were best served in segregated settings.
But that philosophy has changed, and advocates for students with disabilities believe that students are best served in mainstream classrooms.
The report acknowledges that school officials have moved a number of students out of the school already, and plan to mainstream another 25 in January.
But McGaughey said the district should concentrate on helping the rest of the students make the transition back to regular classrooms.
While the academy's mission is to offer a therapeutic learning environment, investigators concluded that the environment is not therapeutic.
The school, they found, does not offer diagnostic evaluations for students who transfer to the school from other schools.
In scathing language, the authors of the report paint a portrait of chaos in which students sometimes arrive at the learning academy without advance notice from their original school.
The verdict on the quality of academic offerings also is harsh: "Actual benefit from the program is clearly limited by inadequate resources and, more fundamentally, by an incoherent program model," the report states.
While some creative teaching is employed in special subjects such as culinary arts, the report concluded, "in the core subjects, we found that students who had already experienced persistent academic failure in other settings were generally expected to sit in traditional desks engaging in unimaginative seatwork, including worksheets."
Henry said steps are being taken to improve the program and strengthen the curriculum.
He also defended the school's therapeutic component, saying the school employs four social workers and a psychiatrist, and that it has an affiliation with Wheeler Clinic.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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