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Special education not one-size-fits-all


Throughout the past 20 years, inclusion of all special education students in the general education population and curriculum has been a hot topic for debate and discussion. This is true among parents whose children receive special education services and, likewise, among public school teachers, special education service providers, paraprofessionals, and administrators.

Portland Public Schools’ current REACH 2020 program plans for all special education students to be offered full inclusion in general education by the year 2020. One of the stated goals of the program is to lessen or eliminate segregation between special education and general education students. Desegregation of all people with differences, whether in the special education context or elsewhere, is an impressive goal and, arguably, an individual right.

However, over the past two decades there has been an ebb and flow of thinking on inclusion for special education students. Many attribute this to changing times, but the real reason is that there is not one program or philosophy that is one-size-fits-all. Conversations with thousands of parents over time reveal that many have fundamental philosophies that guide their inclusion views and decisions.

WISCARSONBased on personal values and beliefs, not all parents agree with inclusion, while others are adamant that their child be fully included in all general education activities. These are intensely personal and sometimes difficult decisions for parents to make as they struggle to determine the best education for their child.

Because philosophies change over the years, kudos to Portland Public Schools for working to accommodate a large and very diverse student population with never enough resources.

From a legal perspective, the most bothersome component of full inclusion models is that they sometimes ignore requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA requires that every student found eligible for special education services have an educational plan written specifically for that student. The special education student and his/her family work with a team at school to develop the student’s Individualized Education Program.

“Individualized” says it all — the educational program is to be specific to each student, and cookie-cutter approaches to providing special education do not meet the requirement of the IDEA.

For any individual special education student, one of the most important hurdles is to determine the supports and services needed to provide that student with an appropriate education — whether or not there is full inclusion. Each student’s educational needs must be individually considered by an IEP team, which includes the parent(s), and an IEP must be developed and implemented to support the student. In an inclusive environment, as in a special education classroom, all necessary supports must be put into place.

It may be impossible for every special education student to be in an inclusive environment at all times, or, for some, at any time. Requiring that every special education student be educated in the general education setting may not meet some students’ particular needs. For example, a student with extreme anxiety may completely shut down and be unable to learn when forced into a larger and often more chaotic general education setting.

Also, there is a balance that must be struck between one student’s right to inclusion and the rights of other students and the teacher. When a special education student needs additional supports to participate in general education classes, those supports can be simple and easy to implement, like allowing a student extra time to complete an assignment or preferential seating to reduce distractions.

But other supports which could be necessary for a special education student to be fully included, such as a full-time nurse providing respiratory suctioning every three to five minutes, might significantly interfere with the teacher’s instruction or prevent other students from learning.

Sweeping changes in special education philosophies often are necessary and very slow in coming, but one truth remains — there is no “one-size-fits-all” model that will work for all students, regardless of whether those students participate in general education, special education, or both.

Diane Wiscarson is a Portland attorney whose primary practice area is special education law for families. Website: wiscarsonlaw.com