State agrees to mainstream more disabled kids

To settle a 10-year-old federal lawsuit, Connecticut has agreed to place more of its 4,000 mentally retarded public school students in mainstream education classes.

The settlement also requires that more students with mental retardation be sent to neighborhood schools and be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities with nondisabled students.

The agreement in the case P.J. vs. State of Connecticut is expected to cost the state millions of dollars in training for teachers and in establishing an expert panel to monitor compliance.

Under a strict timeline, the state will offer support to schools and provide more-aggressive monitoring of districts' compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Although it applies only to Connecticut, experts say the case is likely to affect the way other states treat children with mental retardation, a label under federal special-education laws now known as an "intellectual disability."

The agreement also calls for the state to change a sometimes- murky identification process that leaves black and Hispanic children far more likely to be labeled as mentally retarded than white students.

Both sides expect the settlement to be approved by US Magistrate Donna F. Martinez. Once accepted by a judge, the US District Court in Hartford will oversee, for up to eight years, how mentally retarded students are educated.

"It is an uncommon practice for kids with mental retardation to be in regular education classes," says Eileen Luddy, an independent special education consultant who has worked with more than 60 school districts in the state. "They let them be mainstreamed in physical education, art, music, and in the cafeteria and library.... They pretty much still try to keep the kids out of the academics." An attitude among general education teachers that they can't teach these children is the biggest barrier, she adds.

The settlement "incorporates the basic principles that our law mandates ... which is that mentally retarded students should be schooled with the nondisabled," Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says.

William Jordan, whose son Patrick is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, began pushing West Hartford to include his son in mainstream classes when he was 4. He is now 16, a Boy Scout, a member of the swim team, and a student in regular education courses at Hall High School. "We just felt that he'd become more socially acceptable if he was around typical kids as opposed to being in a concentrated environment where everybody has some kind of disability," Mr. Jordan says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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