Intellectually disabled students have been incorporated into many regular classrooms in Connecticut, but they are often stuck in the back of the room or over to the side and usually aren't doing the same work as the rest of the class, according to special-education advocates.
But Connecticut officials say the state has made tremendous progress and now ranks second in the country for "mainstreaming" intellectually disabled students.
The question is, has Connecticut done enough to integrate such students into classrooms, neighborhood schools and school-sponsored extracurricular activities?
U.S. District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny must now decide whether the state Department of Education has lived up to the requirements of a settlement agreement in an almost 2-decade-old lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the case, known as PJ et. al. v. Connecticut, said in closing arguments Tuesday that the state is in "substantial non-compliance" with several areas of the settlement.
The case dates back to 1991, when six families filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, arguing that a significant percentage of students with intellectual disabilities remained largely segregated. The case wound its way though the courts for years until both sides reached a settlement agreement in 2002 — a settlement that expires Aug. 13.
The state argues that there has been a sea change in the way the state mainstreams intellectually disabled children, making Connecticut second only to Iowa in the rate with which it integrates such students.
"We've moved from 28th in the country to second. If that's not substantial compliance. I don't know what is," said Assistant Attorney General Darren P. Cunningham, who represents the state Department of Education.
The percentage of intellectually handicapped students placed in regular classrooms has gone from the single digits to 50.7 percent today, Cunningham said, adding, "That's significant improvement, monstrous improvement."
Even so, the plaintiffs argue, large numbers of the estimated 3,000 intellectually disabled students in the state are still being denied access to the classroom and are not being placed in neighborhood schools. They say these children are not spending enough time with non-disabled children and are not involved in school-sponsored extracurricular activities.
"Many, many of these students are sitting the back of the class doing something completely different than the other students. Supplemental services are not in place, so these students do not make any progress in the program," said David Shaw, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs argue that the students have a right to be included in the regular classroom and benefit from being with non-disabled students. In many cases, the students can learn to read and write, which allows them to go on to jobs or to secondary education.
Part of the frustration is that teachers often are not trained to teach disabled students and often don't have classroom aides to help them, Shaw said. The state has not forced local school systems to provide the technical assistance the children need to succeed in the classroom, Shaw said.
The plaintiffs also claim that many school systems have reclassified as many as 800 intellectually disabled students as autistic, learning disabled or some other disability in order to dodge the requirements.
Cunningham said the state remains committed to increasing the number of students integrated into the regular classroom but cannot force local school districts to hire aides and is not involved in the local classification process.
"The state Department of Education can only do so much," he said.
He pointed out that the state never guaranteed that there would never be any instance of non-inclusion and was never required to show significant improvement.
"We agreed to work hard and we agreed to show results. We believe we've done that," Cunningham said.
With the settlement set to expire Aug. 13, the plaintiffs worry that any progress will falter or even erode, despite the state's pledge to continue working on the issue.
Chatigny, who has been nominated to the federal appeals court, said he expects to rule on the case soon.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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