Sandra Pyle understood what special education program evaluators meant when they reported that parents often feel intimidated when they first discuss plans for their children.
"That's very real," said Pyle, the president of the county Attention Deficit Disorder Support Group. "I've felt it myself. I've talked to hundreds of parents because of this group, and they do feel intimidated."
Parents' viewpoints were part of a comprehensive evaluation of the school system's special education program presented to the school board last week. Consultants and committees of volunteers studied every aspect of the special education program for two years. Their report praised the program as the best in Maryland and a magnet for special education students, but they also offered recommendations for improvements.
One area that needs attention, the committees said, is the parents' relationship to the system.
"Parents feel intimidated by the ARD [admission, referral and dismissal] process," chairman Alan C. Lovell, executive director of Centers for the Handicapped Inc., in Silver Spring, told the board.
Janet C. Nuse, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Howard County, has had similar responses from parents.
"When we get a phone call from a new member, it's usually when they've just had their first ARD meeting," she said.
The process should be a partnership, Nuse said. "The goal is to get the appropriate education and
placement for your child, and the only way you can do that is if you work together."
School officials know it can be difficult for parents, particularly at an initial meeting, but federal and state laws dictate that an administrator, classroom teacher, a person knowledgeable about the handicapping condition and a person who assessed the child must be present, said Sandra E. Marx, director of special education. The staff could also include a speech and language pathologist, psychologist or nurse.
Recommendations from the evaluation committees included workshops for parents in mainstreaming, behavior management, legal requirements and individual educational programs.
Involving the medical community would help, too, Pyle said. A physician's diagnosis or statement "lends an air of authority that teachers don't seem to think parents have," she said.
Howard County's special education program "is one of the finest in the state of Maryland and probably in the country," said consultant William F. Capallo, retired director of public services with Harford County schools.
The consultants and the committees operated independently, but came to similar recommendations for future steps:
* General education teachers need more training on integrating special education students into their classrooms.
One committee's survey showed that about 40 percent of general education teachers are prepared to accept special education students with the three least severe classifications of disabilities into their classrooms, a percentage committee chairwoman Natalie Woodson termed "very low."
The special education director plans to spend $70,000 in federal and state aid next year to provide training for administrators, special education teachers and about 170 general education teachers.
* School officials should take a good look at programs for severely emotionally disturbed students at Gateway School and Taylor Manor Hospital to see if these programs could be consolidated or relocated to a less restrictive setting.
Marx said she has begun assembling a committee to look at the two programs and to plan for a state initiative that will return students who have been in special schools outside Maryland to their home school districts.
* Special education needs more psychologists and less paperwork. Psychologists spend 70 percent of their time on paperwork and only 30 percent on direct service.
"I think that's a crime," said consultant Donald R. Rabush, associate professor of education at Western Maryland College.
Woodson's committee asked for additional study of enrollment totals that show disproportionately high numbers of males, particularly black males, in the three least severe special education classifications in middle and high schools.
The board scheduled work sessions on July 9 and 23 to discuss the evaluation. A staff response is to be presented to the board next fall.