2001-02-24 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

Back in the 90’s I was a curriculum editor of the Division of Special Education’s Curriculum Development Unit. In that capacity I helped to write a book that was called the "continuum document" in-house. It is now called the Educational Services Handbook and it details placement and services for kids with special needs.

That document has been supplanted this month by something called the "New Continuum." It is a blueprint not so much for providing special education services, but for dismantling special education and placing kids with special needs back in the mainstream.

It may well destroy what is left of education in this city.

For nine years, I taught MIS II (emotionally handicapped) students at a Rockaway middle school. In those nine years, perhaps 120 kids passed through my class. There is no doubt in my mind that every one of those students belonged there, provided with extra adult supervision and isolated from the rest of the students in the school.

During that time the students assaulted me so many times that I lost count after I passed 100. I was attacked with knives, with belts, with hammers, with boxcutters, with fists, with teeth and with feet.

In those days we isolated the kids during lunch and during gym. It made sense because the emotional liability of the students was such that they would attack with almost no notice should they become angered over a real or an imagined wrong.

The Advocates for Children pushed through a rule that all special ed students had to be mainstreamed for both gym and lunch and the collapse of the schools began.

That is not hyperbole, but fact. If you do not believe me, ask the teachers at MS 180, MS 53 or MS 198 if that is not true.

The school in which I now teach has an "inclusion program" that is a model for the new continuum. Two teachers – a regular ed teacher and a special ed teacher – teach a class of 25 kids. Fifteen of them are mainstream students and the other ten are special education.

There is one such class in the seventh grade and one in the eighth. They work because the teachers are great and because the kids (both regular and special ed) were handpicked.

That will end with the New Continuum.

A few months ago, my son and I attended an all day conference on a Saturday at the JFK Library in Boston. We sat in front of three Boston schoolteachers. They have had the New Continuum for two years.

We got to talking and they asked me if we had inclusion programs. I told them that we did and that they were working well. I also told them why. They told me that they had that situation for two years and that it worked well there. This year, however, the middle school that they work in took a 12-student emotionally handicapped class and placed three students in each of four inclusion classes. They placed a paraprofessional in each of the classes as an extra support person for the emotionally handicapped kids.

It did not work. According to the teachers, any education in the classroom became impossible because of the three emotionally handicapped kids.

"Nobody can control them, including their paraprofessional," the teachers told me. "When the other kids saw that they could get away with anything they wanted, those kids began to act out as well. We gave up teaching the curriculum weeks ago."

Unfortunately, that is what the New Continuum will mean for our city as well.

The New Continuum derives from the new federal regulations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that replaces the old Public Act 94-142 that started all the problems in the first place.

One of the principles of IDEA is that the act "recognizes that special education is a service, not a place."

That sounds rather politically correct, rather benign. It is not, however, benign. Neither to the people who staff the schools nor to the students who want an education in the schools. That is because special ed is a place. It is a place where kids who cannot be educated in a mainstream setting are isolated and addressed until they either can work in a mainstream setting or they finish their education entirely.

It will eventually take these kids who disrupted traditional classroom settings, who were removed from the classroom specifically for that reason, and it will put them back in those same classrooms.

Sure, there will be extra services, more adults, more supervision, and increased academic help.

Most, however, will continue to disrupt the classroom and will keep other kids – those who want to learn – from getting an education.

The new continuum document states, "special classes, separate schooling or other removal of students with disabilities from the general education environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the student’s needs are such that education in general education classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."

That, too, sounds benign. If the severity of a kid’s handicapped dictates, they can be put in special classes under that mandate.

That mandate comes, however, from a system that has already blurred the lines dramatically. MIS II (emotionally handicapped) kids are routinely placed in MIS I (learning disable) classes that require no paraprofessional. The MIS II classes are made up of SIE VII (severely emotionally handicapped) students, many of who should have been placed in a special school or in a hospital day setting.

It is these students who disrupt the schools more than any other. Teachers know that fact, supervisors know that fact and the district office knows that fact. Yet they all operate as if those students were no different than any other and that all they need to succeed is for them to be placed back with mainstream kids.

This is pure bologna and they all know it, but it is not politically correct to say so and they go along with something such as the New Continuum.

The new regulations call for the formation of Pupil Personnel Teams (PPT’s) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Committees, more paperwork, more forms, more meetings. It requires that students be moved to "home zone schools," wherever possible. It requires that all students have IEP’s that place them in the LRE by September 2001.

While that has not taken place, you can be sure that the plan will be in place by September, 2002.

At that time you will see kids moving from special classes in one school to regular classes in their home zone school. You will see MIS II students placed in inclusion classes (with two teachers) and you will see more special ed kids placed in regular mainstream classes. Many of them will work out fine. Many others will disrupt the classes, fight with other students and assault staff. That is what they do and that is why they are in special ed in the first place.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Because it is politically correct and that is why we do everything these days.

The plan has no educational value. It has political value and that is all it takes.

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