Harford has agreed to be one of two school districts in the state to launch a pilot program next fall to integrate special education students into neighborhood schools.
The other school district that will take part in the program, aimed at studying the best ways to educate disabled students, is Queen Anne's county.
In Harford, special education students from two school areas will attend neighborhood schools under the pilot program approved by the county Board of Education Monday. A planning committee will choose one elementary and one middle school in Harford by January for the program.
The special education students from these school areas, who now are bused to one of seven schools designated for them, will attend special classes at the public schools.
The pilot program is the first step in response to pressure by state educators who want school districts statewide to place special education classrooms in each school.
Currently, some of Harford's special education students do not attend their neighborhood schools. Under the suggested changes, these students, as well as students at the John Archer School for the severely disabled, would attend special classes in all county schools.
The pilot program and the integration it would begin aims to help the students by ending what some have called a form of segregation. Integration involves putting disabled students into special education classes, but within the public schools they would attend if they weren't disabled.
Proponents of integration say it would allow disabled students to benefit from association with students who do not have disabilities.
"A pilot done in two Maryland schools would show that it would work," said Harford school superintendent Ray R. Keech.
Julia Sheets of Churchville, a parent of a student who attends the John Archer School for the severely disabled, told the school board Monday that the pilot program should allay the fears of parents and teachers.
Some parents of special education students are concerned that children will be ridiculed or will lose self-esteem if they are forced into an environment they can't physically, emotionally or intellectually handle.
"Many parents are scared about integrating (their special education children). This would give them and the teachers a working model to look over," Sheets said.
"And it would show parents of more able students that special ed students bring a richness you can't imagine," she said.
The state will pay the cost for a technical assistance specialist to help coordinate the program during its first year, Keech said. The state and county will split the cost in 1992.
Training for teachers will begin in January, he said. A planning group will work on adapting services and equipment for students to be transferred, training teachers and staff to work with severely disabled students and preparing the school to receive the students by educating parents and students.
Jeanne Schmidt, chair of the Advisory Committee on Special Education, said she thought the pilot program extremely worthwhile. But she cautioned the board that the pilot program needs to be in place at least two years for proper evaluation.
School board member Anne Sterling queried whether parents who do not want their children moved from a special education school into a regular public school would have the option of objecting. Keech said the appeal process already exists and "parents absolutely would have the right to appeal."
Board member Keith Williams abstained from voting on the proposal.
Williams said he's worried that once the state puts through a pilot program, the county will inherit the cost.
"I wanted to see information about the cost," he said. "It's probably a good program, but without a price tag, I didn't feel I could vote for it."