Feaga wants cut in special education Schools get too many disabled, he claims

March 18, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Council member Charles C. Feaga, the west county Republican known for his candor, said yesterday that county schools should reduce special education instruction and suggested Howard schools suffer because they attract too many disabled students from other counties.

"I think we are probably going beyond what we should do," Feaga said.

During a quarterly meeting between the County Council and the school board, Feaga asserted that severely handicapped students often create discipline problems. He cited his recent visit to Ellicott Hills Middle School, where he said a fight involving handicapped children erupted in the hallway.

"Those children didn't belong in that school," Feaga asserted. He said such handicapped children should be educated -- but not in regular classrooms.

Feaga's comments were immediately challenged by a fellow council member and an advocate for the handicapped, who each said Howard needs to try to bring as many handicapped students as it can into its regular classrooms.

According to county school system data, Howard's special education enrollment and spending are increasing -- but only in proportion to overall growth trends.

However, the number of students who have the most severe handicaps is increasing sharply -- 60 percent over the last six years, according to county school figures.

The number of those children classified as mentally retarded grew by 48 percent from 1992 to 1995, according to state figures. Only Prince George's had a higher growth rate among central Maryland counties, according to data from eight other school systems.

In its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, the Howard school system plans to spend $26.8 million on special education, or 11 percent of its budget. The schools had 4,023 special education students at the start of this school year -- with 1,038 classified as the most severely disabled.

Educators, advocates for the handicapped and other politicians interviewed yesterday agree with Feaga that Howard does have a reputation as a relatively good place for special education.

But Feaga's assertion that the county ought to reduce the amount of special education instruction was met with stinging disapproval from a fellow council member as well as the chairwoman of the Howard County Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee.

"We are talking about the future of this country, of this county," said the normally reserved Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat.

In an interview after yesterday's meeting, she pointed to the ground and said she was on her soapbox, adding: "This is what Charlie does to me."

County educators said they are committed to mainstreaming handicapped children into the county's regular classrooms as mandated by law. If parents move to Howard because of that, so be it. It is up to the other counties to improve, they said.

"We do what we think is best," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

Frances Wang, a special education advocate, said the county needs to spend more money on disabled students -- that any discipline problems are due to large class sizes and minimum teacher training.

A Howard County school board study released last year had some similar findings. The study -- an evaluation of middle schools -- recommended more special education staff and resources.

Among its findings, the report stated that classes frequently had too many special education students in proportion to the number of regular students. One example cited 12 special education students in a class of 26.

"There are serious questions as to whether inclusion is being implemented in an appropriate fashion in the Howard County middle schools," the report stated. " If inclusion is not implemented in the appropriate fashion, it has an impact not only on special education students, but on all classes and students."

Howard schools must do a better job, said Wang, the special education advocate. And she said Feaga's comments are headed in the wrong direction.

"It's an attitude of compassion and common sense," she said. "You have to see value in every human being. They're not a dollar sign."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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