Special education is focus of session

Frustrated parents air their grievances

April 02, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Frustration was thick in the air last night as parent after parent - some visibly shaking - detailed the erratic problems with special education services in Howard County during a question-and-answer session with School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

Individual education plans (IEPs), required for disabled students, aren't systematically being met, they said; principals at neighborhood schools sometimes refer children elsewhere; teacher training is lacking; special educators are too few.

The parents demanded answers and solutions, which O'Rourke wasn't always prepared to give.

It was a tough position to be in, but one parent seemed to understand, noting that O'Rourke had staff to handle the details.

O'Rourke pledged his full commitment to providing a free, appropriate public education for all students based on their IEPs, which is required by federal law.

He also offered examples of system efforts, such as asking principals to evaluate their education of disabled students in the least restrictive environment the student IEPs allow and a move to build early childhood development centers into new schools.

In addition, he outlined changes within the entire school system that also affect special education, including the identification of goal areas, increased staff development ventures and greater accountability for all, starting at the top.

"You shouldn't leave here tonight thinking there will be some sort of eureka response and things will be dramatically different tomorrow," O'Rourke said, explaining that system change was a process, one he and the county were striving toward.

"We're far better today than we have been," he said, "and we'll be better tomorrow than today."

But for some, that's not soon enough.

One woman's son is graduating from high school this year, and he won't be able to participate fully in the ceremony because Merriweather Post Pavilion is not wheelchair accessible. One father's child can't maneuver his wheelchair up the incline of the school's playground. One couple said their child's goals aren't being reached in class because the resources promised in the IEP aren't there.

"I can't argue with the fact that if we had more resources, we could be more effective," O'Rourke said, showing frustration of his own. "And if we had more money, we could have more resources, but we don't."

Carey Wright, the school system's director of special education, said the special education picture in Howard County is not as bleak as it has been painted, noting that the county has reached state goals outlined in August.

But the state goals of having 80 percent of its special education children in general education classrooms for at least 60 percent of the time (Howard has 85 percent in that category) don't meet the federal goals of having 90 percent of special education children in regular classrooms for 80 percent of the time.

Howard has 41.7 percent of its disabled children meeting that benchmark.

Wright said the county will work to exceed the state goals, and has previously said groups and committees have been set up to study the needs associated with that.

Some parents, including Ben Dorman who sits on the board of the Autism Society of America, saw individual principal attitudes as one of the biggest problems the county has to overcome.

"We have groups of particular problem schools where principals are less sympathetic" to special-needs requirements, Dorman said.

O'Rourke agreed that successful special education hinged on the leadership at individual schools, saying he held building principals "responsible for whatever goes on in that building." He further claimed it his responsibility to make sure the administrators are improving.

The gathering last night was the third time O'Rourke has met with members of the Special Education Community Advisory Committee and the parents of children in special education programs.

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