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Don't take sides on Inclusion

By Marcie Roth

I have been fighting for children with disabilities to be able to receive a free appropriate public education since before PL 94-142 -- now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA -- was passed, back in 1975. I have represented hundreds of families as they fought to get their children that free appropriate public education in their neighborhood school, in the classroom the child would have attended if they didn't have a disability.

Last spring I put my 11-year-old son Dustin on a short bus and sent him to a segregated school in another county at a cost of $50,000-plus per year to the taxpayers of my community. Shocking? You can only imagine.

I have been active in the leadership of national organizations fighting for inclusion. I've provided training and technical assistance to states, communities, school districts and schools on exactly how to include students with disabilities in general ed.

Funded by U. S. and the state department of education, I spent three years in classrooms across my state, showing school teams how to include students I've been widely published on the topic of inclusion, and have developed a number of tools that are in use today in general ed classrooms. I can honestly say I've never met a child who can't successfully be included, under the "right" circumstances, no matter what.

Yet last spring I put my 11-year-old son Dustin on a short bus and sent him to a segregated school in another county at a cost of $50,000-plus per year to the taxpayers of my community.

Shocking? You can only imagine.

I have been battling with our school system for four years to get Dustin the educational supports and services he needs -- and is legally entitled to -- without success. Despite intervention from the Maryland State Department of Education, the U. S. Department of Education, Congress, the White House, and even a superbly honest article by reporter Jay Mathews that ran in the Feb. 6 Washington Post, Dustin's Individualized Education Plan -- his "IEP" -- was never implemented. Not for one day.

This is not just my view of things, but the actual "Findings" from the Maryland State Department of Education. (I have four such "Letters of Findings.") No behavior support plan, no keyboarding, no extra set of books for home, inadequate testing, outright lies. And then there was the abuse, also honestly portrayed in the Washington Post.

Despite it all, rather than implement Dustin's IEP, as required by law, my school system decided they "couldn't" serve him. They wanted him placed in a segregated school, in another county.

'I made the honor roll'. . .

Dustin's "last report card had shown N/G, which meant no grade, in every subject except physical education, where he received the single A that apparently qualified him for the honor. . . .

"Dustin was bragging about the award in his science class at Tilden Middle School in Rockville when his teacher interrupted him. 'I can't allow you to be dishonest in this class,' the woman said. 'You didn't make the honor roll, Dustin.'

"When the boy objected, the teacher apparently forgot she was dealing with a fragile ego in a room full of children and said, 'You couldn't have made the honor roll because you failed my class.'"

From "Special-Ed Fight an Exercise in Frustration," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer, Feb. 6, 2003, The Washington Post

I was fortunate, though. Because of our high profile (and the Washington Post article), I was able to reject the hellholes they tried to send Dustin to (where 4-point restraint and timeout rooms are still in use), and managed to get him into a truly wonderful school, as segregated schools go.

In less than two weeks, my previously devastated child began to blossom. I have never seen him as proud as he was when he signed his name to a gift for his grandparents. He looked at me, beaming, and said "Look what the OT taught me to do!" Dustin was supposed to have received occupational therapy services as far back as 1998, but it took until now for it to actually happen.

I bet you're wondering why I didn't take legal action to force implementation of the IEP. I tried. I did as much as I could. A few wonderful people stepped up to help me, but I was unable to afford the legal battle I needed to fight, and I was well aware that even with adequate resources to spend on a lawsuit ($50,000 or more), I was likely to lose anyway. There are very few legal resources for people like me. Just last year, I spent $8,000 out of pocket, paying expenses for professional experts to attend meetings -- professionals I would have needed to use as expert witnesses in a hearing had I pursued a lawsuit. This was in addition to the $14,000 I spent out of pocket on copays for healthcare, after my really decent health insurance paid its portion.

While I was struggling to pay experts to attend meeting after meeting, as I fought for my child's right to an education, my school system was paying lawyers $650 an hour or more to fight parents like me. Where did they get that money to spend? Taxpayer dollars, of course! they used my taxpayer dollars -- yours, too -- against my child.

Dustin's neighborhood school should be able to include him. But they have proven that they have neither the will nor the way to do it. I am a staunch inclusionist who now says: you're wasting your breath on that argument.

My new friends -- parents of kids in segregated schools -- will fight to the death to keep these segregated schools -- until we can be guaranteed that "inclusion" will not hurt our children.

I am far more aware than most that it really is possible to get inclusion right. I'm also far more aware than most of just how wrong "inclusion" is when it's not right.

My child will no longer pay a price for my ideology. He's paying a different price right now -- the price of being segregated from his nondisabled peers. I get to live with the guilt of allowing this. Supporting it, even.

If you want to be part of the solution, don't take sides on inclusion. Put your energy toward demanding full implementation and enforcement of IDEA. Until our children are assured that the law will really be implemented and enforced, the rest of the debate is irrelevant.

Marcie Roth is executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and a longtime national disability rights advocate.

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