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A. Obstacles Experienced by Students with Disabilities & Their Families
The experience of many parents gives the impression that compliance with the law is the exception rather than the rule. Parents frequently face repeated challenges year after year, sometimes throughout the entire elementary and secondary educational experience of the child. The stress of working with a recalcitrant school system that appears to not want to work with a parent to educate a disabled child can be tremendous. The recent controversy over the discipline provisions in IDEA has fueled special education cases related to suspension and expulsion of students.
The following situations are examples of what many students and families in this country experience when working with special education systems. These experiences demonstrate that even the most basic promises of the law are too often not being met.
In another situation, in Indiana, a student who is blind sought to attend his local school. The school district required the child to travel 25 miles away from home to a residential school for the blind to receive the educational services he needed. A hearing officer determined that the child must be served in his home school, which is the least restrictive environment. The school district has appealed the ruling.
In New Jersey, a very bright elementary-age child with dyslexia was in a resource room several periods a day. In more than two years she had not shown progress in reading. Her parents sought training for the teachers on how to best instruct children with dyslexia in reading. The school system responded by seeking to place the child in a self-contained classroom. The school contended that it teaches all children to read by the same method. The parents prevailed in court and were awarded instructional compensation for the child over the summer.
These situations, all related to the "least restrictive environment" mandate, persist case after case and year after year despite repeated rulings for integrated placements. In one of the best known cases, Rachel Holland and her family spent five years fighting in court for her right to be educated in a regular classroom. The school district in California insisted that Rachel, then a seven-year-old girl with mental retardation, be educated in a separate special education classroom. Her parents held that she should be educated in a regular classroom with support. In 1992, the district court ordered an aide and special education consultant to work part-time with Rachel's teacher and held that she should be placed in a regular classroom. The school district appealed this decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, thus affirming the lower court's decision. Rachel and her parents were engaged in pursuing their child's right to an integrated education for more than five years. For two of those years, they were in a position of defending against appeals by the school system. During the pendency of the case, the Hollands placed Rachel in a regular private school, at their own expense, where she was in a regular classroom with supports. She continues to thrive today in a regular public education classroom.
Early in the game I discovered that many of my teachers felt that I was a nice, respectful, and intelligent young girl. However, they had some doubts about my capabilities and immediately began to label and set limits on my future role in society. Instead of helping me to find ways to learn, they moved me to a special class where kids were not expected to learn. I would get angry about their doubts and my self-esteem was low. My mother would fight back with encouraging words and my self-esteem would rise again. After being encouraged by mother's words, I again realized that I am the key person in my future.Saundra Lemmons, a 17-year-old high school student and basketball champion in Washington, DC, told her story to politicians in February 1999.
Lemmons was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded in the first grade and for years was improperly placed. While she has language processing problems, she never received speech and language therapy. Teachers allowed her to pass from grade to grade as "a gift." Finally, during the 1998-99 school year, Lemmons began receiving speech and language therapy. She hopes to play basketball in college, but fears that her low academic skills will prevent her from succeeding in life. After 12 years in special education, she has reached only a fourth-grade reading level. "The school system has not given me what I needed," she said. "I feel as though no one really cares. If they did care, I would be reading a lot better," she added.
Cases related to suspension and expulsion are increasing. In New Jersey, a middle school student was receiving special education because of multiple disabilities, including behavior problems. After an incident in the classroom where the child threw something (not harming anyone) and tipped over a chair, the child was suspended and then expelled and placed on home instruction. The child is currently in a self-contained setting in a different school district. The child did not have a behavioral plan as part of his Individualized Education Program (IEP), nor has he had a functional behavioral assessment. In Delaware, parents successfully challenged a school district's failure to provide special education services to students with disabilities who are expelled.
Parents have a reasonable expectation that the federal and state agencies charged with monitoring and enforcement will do their jobs. But as these cases demonstrate, parents throughout the country cannot be sure that the rights of their children are protected in school districts and states. Noncompliance in many states is still too common, even after more than two decades of implementation.
The following section discusses the experiences of parents and others in their roles as advocates in obtaining services and supports under IDEA for children with disabilities.
Their concerns were echoed by many of the parents and others who attended the NCD-sponsored Town Meeting on Federal Enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act sponsored by NCD in Washington, DC, on September 22, 1999. Their comments are highlighted to underscore concerns raised throughout this section.
"Parents are disenfranchised. .... with minority parents, particularly, the information is not disseminated. We have not been included certainly in the monitoring process in Texas. And I'm just wondering what kind of effort is going to be made to include those really, truly minority grassroots programs and parents working in these communities, and visible to the school districts. They know who we are. We're not getting the information, so it needs to come from maybe another source other than the school district." - Parent from Texas on the failure to involve parents, especially in minority communities, in monitoring IDEAOther barriers to meaningful parental involvement in the monitoring process cited included the following:
".....in the state of Maryland, we
were not notified of the meeting. ...The only parents that showed
up were the ones that found out secondhand." - a parent from Maryland
on the invitation to public participation in the monitoring process
"OSEP monitors did paint a very accurate picture of what was going on [in the state]. But, that's where it broke down. The same districts are cited for the same violations year after year, and there are no consequences for noncompliance, no incentives to do good."This concern over the apparent lack of consequences and enforcement as a result of the monitoring process was undeniably the strongest and most common concern expressed by parent advocates who were interviewed.
"I've turned green when somebody says we're going to do technical assistance [to remedy noncompliance]. For 24 years this has been the law. How much technical assistance do we do? What does it take until you get it? Our kids are only in school until 21 but we've got 24 years of technical assistance. Come on, guys. I want to see accountability. You deliver the mail or you don't get the money!" - parent from Florida on the minimal impact of technical assistance on correcting noncompliance in her state
"Noncompliance occurs at the school site level, at the district level, and at the state level, and if all levels are not monitoring and ensuring, it cannot fall on the backs of parents to remedy. You have to take out some of those states or districts and then start setting an example." - Parent from California on the need for DoED to change its heavy reliance on parent enforcement of IDEA
One parent suggested, "We need incentives for those who are doing it right and have promising practices, and ongoing technical assistance for those who aren't."
They clearly expressed their sense of urgency about the need to follow through:
"Currently there are no administrative standards or accountability. Monitoring is okay, but how do we take it to the next step? We've got to hit them in the pocketbook. There are consequences of noncompliance for our kids, and there should be consequences for the districts."
"Our constituency [children with disabilities] is not a strong constituency. It is not sexy to be for us. ....Teachers get their marching orders from principals, who get their marching orders from boards of education who respond to state legislatures...... It's got to be okay for a teacher to say okay, I will take a risk. For a principal to say, I'll take a risk..... If the state legislatures and the governors do not take that kind of stand, I'm sorry, folks, it's not going to happen. It hasn't happened in 20 years and it's not going to happen now. .. So, ..it is a political reality of [OSEP] approaching a legislature, of approaching governors and saying, 'Hey, guys, unless you give real credence to what we're doing, this is not going to happen no matter how many millions of dollars we filter down to you." - Parent from Florida on the need for OSEP to educate state legislatures about persistent noncompliance and its impactIn recognition that the IDEA amendments of 1997 will require a concerted effort to fully implement the law and enable federal and state monitoring to truly achieve full compliance, the National Parent Network on Disabilities (NPND) (an organization that comprises Parent Training and Information centers around the country) has recommended the establishment of a "People's Monitoring and Compliance Project." This proposed project to promote greater grassroots involvement in monitoring would gather information about the status of monitoring, develop a report, transmit it to the Congress and the Administration, request oversight hearings in the Congress, request that the Secretary of Education set up a monitoring committee to report to him or her, and establish and convene a legal advocacy group. This project is still under development at NPND.
Another concern cited by Sheppard is the racial discrimination faced by students with disabilities in southern Georgia. She notes that children who are African-American in south Georgia are too frequently labeled as behavior disordered or mentally retarded and then served in separate settings. There is one program that serves three- and four-year-old African-American children in a separate setting, she notes. Reports from New Jersey also indicate that students with disabilities who are racial minorities are more likely to be in separate settings than those who are not racial minorities.
Minority and Rural Communities
"...there is a very big need on our reservation to have monitoring of our school districts. We've made it very clear to them that we have a need, that there are problems in our education system, and our children are not getting IDEA implemented there. And we're told by our district people that 'yes, we agree there is a problem.' Well, where do we go after we get the acknowledgment and there's nothing done about it?" - a Native American parent from Montana Other studies find that minority children are over-represented in institutions such as detention and correctional facilities where access to appropriate educational services is inadequate to nonexistent. That is especially problematic considering that 40 percent of youth held in detention are estimated to have some form of learning disability.
The students whose stories and situations discussed above are just a few among many whose special education needs were not or are not now being met in their state educational systems.
Finding # II.1A
Finding # II.1B
Recommendation # II.1A
Recommendation # II.1B
When noncompliance is not corrected within the agreed upon time frame, the Department of Education should aggressively enforce the law, using clearly defined appropriate sanctions to improve accountability and achieve compliance with the law.
Finding # II.2
Parents have not been invited consistently to be involved in the monitoring process, and, if invited, have not consistently been given an opportunity to be heard.
Parents are not knowledgeable enough about either the requirements of IDEA or the monitoring and enforcement processes.
The presentation of compliance information in the monitoring reports is inconsistent from one monitoring period to the next, making evaluation of improvements over time difficult.
The recommendations below address how some of these obstacles can be corrected.
Recommendation # II.2A
Recommendation # II.2B
The combined resources of PTIs, P&As, and IL centers are needed to develop and maintain special education advocacy services and programs statewide at a level commensurate with the need of students with disabilities and their parents for assistance in obtaining services and supports under IDEA, as well as participating effectively in monitoring and enforcement.
Recommendation # II.2C
Such standardization is essential for accurate and credible evaluation of compliance from one monitoring period to the next.
Part III provides a more in-depth description and analysis of DoED's roles and responsibilities vis-a-vis the implementation and enforcement of IDEA.
Go to Part III-A, Grant Administration, Compliance Monitoring
Go to Part III-B, Complaint Handling and Enforcement