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A model of inclusion?

Some say no, while the Lake Oswego School District has already set new guidelines for special education classrooms

More children receiving special services in the Lake Oswego School District are now eligible for placement in special education classrooms, according to a document the board reviewed on Nov. 3 - a fact that the district sees as flexibility, and dissatisfied parent/attorney Cynthia Mohiuddin sees as the district setting itself up for violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She believes that in her family's situation, such violations have been made.

IDEA, created in 1975, requires districts to provide all students a 'free and appropriate education' in the 'least restrictive environment' regardless of special needs.

A new provision under IDEA will allow parents - including Mohiuddin and her husband - to opt out of any district's specialized plan for their child's education on Jan. 1.

At the board meeting, Special Services Director Patrick Tomblin presented a new one-page Special Education Strategic Plan, which the board approved. The plan will replace the last goal-setting document, which was created in 2005.

Along with that he brought out charts and other guidelines - including a new continuum or scale of services - that are used in the placement process. Tomblin says the documents were not meant to be a part of the plan and that the brevity of the new document is to provide more flexibility for individual students.

Mohiuddin and her husband Bob Keller, a new member of the Special Services Parent Advisory Committee, were not in attendance at the Nov. 3 meeting, and arrived at the Nov. 17 meeting angry, assuming that the new continuum was part of the plan and could affect their ongoing litigation with the district over the inclusion of their third grade son, who has a sensory disorder, in his regular classroom at Palisades Elementary School.

Because of the litigation, the district's attorney has now asked Mohiuddin, who is acting as attorney in her own lawsuit, to give prior notice if she plans on speaking at a public board meeting.

Mohiuddin and Keller filed a complaint with the Clackamas County Circuit Court this fall after they disagreed with their son's placement in Delta, a special education classroom. His disorder contributes to disruptive behavior in which loud noises can cause him to overreact aggressively in class. He is also a TAG student in math, and his parents feel that he can function fine in the classroom with small modifications.

The complaint isn't the first - they have spent the last year arguing the issue, trying two routes of dispute resolution with the Oregon Department of Education. Though the disputes have not gotten their son a change in placement, ODE also found the LOSD in violation of IDEA on one count of eight. The district was required to send employees to a training session on what procedures to follow when a child's behavior changes his placement.

A shift in special services

Tomblin, who is in his second year with the district, says he is trying to move the district toward a more flexible model of special services. He said having a one-page plan is more on-par with the way other departments - such as TAG - run within the district.

The new continuum chart that he gave to the board is a supplemental document to help determine who can use a special education classroom. It is not, however, the guiding document, he said. The document that determines a child's placement is called the Individualized Education Plan or IEP, and it changes multiple times throughout a child's education.

The continuum chart, though, is meant to illustrate that more flexibility is possible. It is less restrictive than the old one, he said, because it opens it up to students whose IEPs stipulate up to 95 percent of their time in a regular class.

This means that even a high school student with 95 percent of his time in regular education can use the Delta room. Maybe that student will keep up on assignments better by checking in at the beginning and end of the day, said Tomblin.

The old model - supported by the 2005 Recommendations for Special Education Program and Services - indicated that only students who spent 40 percent of their day or less in the regular classroom were entitled to placement in a special classroom, such as the Delta program.

The district says it's moving toward a more efficient model. For example, there has been a shift away from providing one-on-one educational assistants for students in the regular classroom. The annual cost for a one-on-one assistant is $28,000, said Tomblin. A special classroom that has a teacher and two assistants is $160,000 a year in salaries and benefits. So, when the district has at least six students in a special classroom, then, according to the district, it is more cost effective.

Currently all of the high school-level specialized classrooms are at capacity, while Tomblin suspects that the elementary ones will be by the end of the school year. Capacity for Delta at the K-3 level is 8 to 10 students, at the 3-12 level is 10 to 12 students. The ACCESS program and the Transition program can both take between 16-20 students.

A few political observers say that Tomblin was hired to implement this new model and maximize the use of the district's special education programs. 'Patrick came into the district to build capacity - that means coming up with cost-effective ways to educate them and then mainstream them,' said Cheryl Goeken, another member of the SSPAC.

'Mainstreaming' means that a child would participate in regular classes for some time with his or her peers, most likely for non-academic subjects.

Parents have mixed feelings

Some SSPAC members say their children are more successful in a more flexible model, such as the one the district is moving toward.

Maggie Janks' son has autism and is a junior in the ACCESS program at Lake Oswego High School.

When he was in kindergarten, he had tried the regular classroom with the aid of an educational assistant and other modifications, such as speech and occupational therapy.

'At the end of the year, we made the decision to place him in a special ed classroom across town where he would get more intense individualized services,' said Janks. During that time he was mainstreamed for non-academic activities.

In fourth grade, he started transitioning to more and more instruction in the regular classroom with the help of an educational assistant.

'I have always felt that he needed to have the opportunity to interact and observe typical peers, however … if he couldn't learn academics in that environment, he needed to go to a place that he could,' said Janks. 'I wanted my child to have the best academic achievement possible, regardless of the setting. If that meant that he had 30 percent inclusion, or whatever that may be, that is what it was.

Allan Solares' son, who has autism, is in the Delta program at Lakeridge High School. He currently attends two periods in a regular classroom each day and Solares hopes he will be able to add another regular course next year.

Pam Montoya's son, who has autism, went to a specialized class for reading his fifth grade year at Forest Hills Elementary School. He participated in science and social studies in the general classroom.

'We tried to have him in the regular reading class with the ap-propriate level, and he was getting behind,' said Montoya. 'One teacher really wanted to keep him in there, and we just had to say this is not working.'

The process has always valued inclusion in the regular classroom as much as was possible for her son, she said.

Janks and Solares agreed.

'I have never experienced the school holding him in a restricted environment because the IEP said so,' said Janks.

'The district has not tried to warehouse kids,' said Solares.

Unlike many others, Mohiuddin and Keller's son does not have autism but a sensory processing disorder. His IEP put him in a regular classroom 82 percent of the time, so according to the guidelines, he would have received some type of specially designed instruction other than a special classroom. Mohiuddin argues that according to the 2005 continuum in place at the time that he should not have been placed in the Delta program.

Tomblin says though a continuum is a requirement under IDEA law, the specific range of a continuum is left to the districts to determine. And for LOSD, the continuum serves as a supplement to help in the placement process.

Mohiuddin feels that Tomblin's recent change to the document was intentional to allow room for her son to be placed in Delta.

Other parents agree that Mohiuddin's philosophy of inclusion is a great ideal.

'The seduction of the inclusion ideal is so attractive. But it starts to trump the realities of a child's capability. Inclusion is sometimes pursued to the detriment of the child,' said Solares.

The district could be providing an appropriate education according to the law without necessarily having the resources to provide the best possible education.

'You have to balance inclusion with what works,' he said.

Mohiuddin still wants the best: 'The district (nor the ODE in its order) has never in all of our correspondence claimed the nature and severity of our son's disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aides and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. They only said it was not practical. That is not the standard; that is laziness.'

The district will not comment on the Mohiuddin-Keller situation because of pending litigation.

Getting back to regular education

'There is enormous pressure for containment,' said Goeken. 'There have been some huge shifts in our model. We're in the middle of it right now, and I don't think we all understand it. It's getting scary. It seems like we're getting toward segregation - like the 1970s.'

For Goeken the question is: How do you weave a kid back into regular education?

This seems to be the hope of district administration - that special classrooms will be like a detour on the education highway. Eventually students are supposed to get back on that highway better equipped.

That might be the case for SSPAC members Janks, Montoya and Solares, but Roberta Dunn, a resident of the Beaverton School District and a member of the State Advisory Council for Special Education, feels that most of the time inclusion in regular education doesn't happen the way it should.

She uses the illustration of a highway, saying that sometimes the modifications made to a child's IEP progressively get further and further away from regular education turning into another route all together - a route she feels is out of line with the IDEA law.

Dunn recently started a metro-area parent group to address the issue of inclusion. Her group, called ICAN or Inclusive Communities Action Network, met for the first time the week of Thanksgiving. She envisions a community where kids are automatically included regardless of disability. 'We're looking at it the wrong way,' said Dunn. 'Instead of looking at how much we must include, we should go at it that we should always include and only remove when we have to.'

Dunn feels that special classrooms should only be used when other modifications have been tried and found ineffective.

Another disservice of special classrooms is that typical students miss out on lessons they can learn from those with disabilities, said Dunn.

'(Special needs students) will not have an opprotuntity to grow personally, but also the community won't grow to be ready for including those with disabilities,' said Dunn. '(Special needs students) are going to turn 21 and have to survive in a very real world.'

A new out

For Mohiuddin's part, she might have another avenue of action. The U.S. Department of Education on Monday released a new regulation under the IDEA, which goes into effect Jan. 1. It gives parents the right to revoke their consent from special services.

'(This) is consistent with the IDEA's emphasis on the role of parents in protecting their child's rights and the department's goal of enhancing parent involvement and choice in their child's education,' the document says.

'All I can say about that right now is: 'Hallelujah,'' said Mohiuddin if she and Keller choose to take advantage of this new regulation.

Previously, after parents agreed to an IEP, they lost some control over the process. All they could do was file a complaint or due process with ODE, and if that didn't work there weren't any other options other than a lawsuit.

Mohiuddin isn't sure what they will do now. She does know that her son could return to regular education.

'The question shifts to the district: Will it participate in crafting an IEP that provides services for him to be successful there, or will he get no services?' she asked. 'I continue to hope the district will soften its position and work with us. So far I do not see that happening.'