Inclusion: Good Idea, Bad Execution

August 25, 1993

Moving toward inclusion for larger numbers of special education students is one of the better ideas Baltimore County public school officials have had in the past year. Too bad they executed it so poorly.

Along with the demotions of some 40 principals and assistant principals, inclusion of special education pupils in regular classes raised a great furor in the county. The controversies drove a school board president to resign and convinced her successor to name a task force to study the two issues.

The final report of the task force is due this Friday. However, in comments released two weeks ago, the investigative panel of the task force hinted at possible criticisms to come. School Superintendent Stuart Berger and his staff might have violated federal law by assigning special students to regular neighborhood schools without fully reviewing each pupil's needs, the panel said.

Inclusion should have been a no-brainer for school officials. They had various tools at their disposal to put the program across. Among them:

* The county's embarrassing status as the jurisdiction with the second-highest number of special students in segregated settings, in a state -- Maryland -- that's one of the worst offenders nationally in terms of segregated special-education pupils.

* U.S. Department of Education findings that the county hasn't provided the "least restrictive environment" to all special students, plus a federal order to implement inclusion at three of the county's five special schools by mid-1995.

* National studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from the 20-some county schools where inclusion has been tried, indicating that the concept benefits special and regular pupils alike.

School officials should have stressed these and other factors in a campaign to promote inclusion. Instead, the idea was rushed with insufficient public consultation. Moreover, priority was given to the two special schools that weren't even cited in the federal order, fueling the criticism that those students were moved from one of the schools so regular students could use the facility.

A U.S. District Court judge recently -- and rightly -- denied a request for a restraining order against the inclusion plans. It's too late to stop inclusion; nor should it be stopped. County officials reportedly have begun the outreach to special education families that wasn't taking place before. These efforts must be continued to give inclusion the chance it deserves.

Tomorrow: The demotions controversy.

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