She was a bright 9-year-old with a high IQ and a flair for creative writing.
When she grew anxious and refused to do homework, her parents and school were at a loss. No one considered it a learning disability, until sixth grade when she tried to commit suicide. She was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a neurological disorder that can interfere with basic social skills.
Still, looking at her academic record, officials in her Maine school district said that while she needed extra support, they saw no reason to place the girl - known as L.I. in court documents - in special education. After all, she'd been able to learn despite her difficulties.
But her parents disagreed with the decision, and have filed a civil rights suit in federal court in Maine.
In an era when special education is one of the fastest-growing areas in school budgets nationwide, this case symbolizes new questions about the responsibilities of classroom teachers: To what extent should schools take steps to help children with social and emotional disabilities, particularly when children demonstrate strong academic capacities? Which of these kids belong in special ed and which just need extra help - from counseling to greater supervision on the playground?
These have become important questions as budgets tighten in schools across the country and the diagnosis of learning disabilities soars in both number and variety. "Special education is making us rethink what education is," says Perry Zirkel, an education law specialist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Many educators agree that education expands beyond books, he says, but opinions differ across districts on where the line should be drawn. "Is it just reading, writing, and arithmetic? Or [should education be] interpreted more broadly to include interaction with others and social skills?"
One thing is clear: The number of children in the United States who qualify for special education is up nearly 40 percent in the past decade: Some 6.5 million children between ages 3 and 21 have been diagnosed with special needs - and cost at least twice as much as other kids to educate. Of some $50 billion (and rising) spent on special ed annually, the federal government contributes only about 18 percent.
Although national numbers haven't been tallied, special education spending is the fastest growing expenditure for schools, says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. When special education laws were created in the 1970s, "we had no idea what we were getting into," he says.
Some experts, indeed, worry about "mission creep," with an ever-expanding list of mental impairments. There's controversy, for example, over whether the prescription of antidepressant drugs to children is going too far. But many mental-health specialists see progress in addressing problems such as autism, dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Legally, the federal law mandating special ed - the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, applies to any student whose education is "adversely affected" by a disability to the point of needing special education. But "adversely" is subjective across districts, say advocates. Disabilities marked by high IQs but a broad range of social or emotional needs are generally referred to as "hidden disabilities."
And with or without help from the school district, such challenges can burden families with a financial and emotional toll just as other disabilities do.
"Children who have hidden disabilities have a harder time getting services ... especially children who are passing [easily] from grade to grade," says Johanne Pino, an education specialist for Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
At the elementary school district in Maine, school officials recognized that L.I. would need specialized instruction in social and pragmatic language skills, and that she needed an individualized program to take advantage of her cognitive strengths, court documents say. But they said it was not a special education issue.
The special ed director at the school did not return phone calls for this story.
"Those children often look more capable than they are," says Richard O'Meara, the family's lawyer in Maine. To him, the school's refusal to fully accommodate L.I. "sets a dangerous precedent ... for other students with disabilities who academically may be able to do the work, but ... cannot otherwise function in their mainstream schools."
Some advocates in Maine agree. Nancy Intrieri, the executive director of the Autism Society of Maine, decided to file an amicus brief on behalf of L.I., because she says the qualification for special services should not be based on academic records alone.
Children with Asperger's can have problems reading body language and understanding others' perspectives. Their abilities to navigate society can be limited. "I believe I would say it is the school's job to teach social skills, while it's the parents' job to teach socialization," Ms. Intrieri says.
Over the past decade, as thousands of children have been identified with Asperger's, some schools have adopted specialized services with some success. But districts still have limited resources and, in many cases, limited expertise. James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, says "gatekeepers" in some schools are doing everything possible to limit the numbers of children admitted. "Why?" he asks. "Mostly it's a matter of cost."
Another issue, he says, is the No Child Left Behind law. When it comes to school accountability, kids in special education are part of a subcategory for which test scores need to be tracked - unless the number of special ed students in the school is below a certain threshold.
"Everyone feels good about serving disabled kids," says Mr. Hunter. But "neither state or federal governments have been able to admit what they saddled school districts with, that's what makes people grind their teeth."
Bills have passed in both the House and Senate to reauthorize IDEA. Both call for an increase $2.2 billion in federal spending over the next seven years, bringing the federal share of funding to 40 percent by 2011. Meanwhile, a task force under the Department of Education riled special education advocates when they called for a reduction in the number of youngsters labeled with learning disabilities, says Hunter. They maintained that better instruction in reading, for example, could prevent children from needing special education services.
Consultants like Elizabeth Ives Field in Maine say schools are doing their best to educate children with limited resources. When students don't qualify for special education, like L.I., they are often offered services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
But many parents feel this is a "consolation prize," says Zirkel. He says once a disability is recognized under law and deemed to adversely affect a student's education, the next question is whether parents feel the services provided are adequate. Many do not, and the number of lawsuits has exploded.
For Ms. Intrieri, such case law is a key test for special ed. She says L.I. may understand certain ideas, but doesn't have the skills to exchange those ideas. That, she says, is the school's job.