Schools in quandary over special ed laws

By BRIAN KELLY

Herald Writer

Where should special needs students be placed to get the education that is constitutionally guaranteed?

Experts say that the phrase "least restrictive environment" (LRE) is one of the most misunderstood phrases in special education.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about least LRE. Those misconceptions lead districts to place more students into general education or environments where they are not getting their needs met," said Pat Steinburg, disabilities coordinator for the Washington Education Association.

"There’s also misunderstanding on the part of teachers, and I think some principals. I think they’re both misinformed in that they seem to believe that if they have a student who is destroying the classroom or having repeated acts of aggression, for some reason they seem to think they can’t do anything about it. That they have to let that student be where they are."

Out-of-district placements sound good in theory. Reality offers a different view, however.

"There are so few places for school districts to place children outside of their schools. … Frequently, districts are faced with placing students out-of-state," Steinburg said.

"Washington state is really short on those kinds of places."

Roughly 5,000 students in the state have serious behavioral disabilities.

Last year, only 229 special education students were placed in hospital or residential programs, and most had health impairments that dictated their placement. The second-largest subset of that group, 45 students, had behavioral disabilities.

Out-of-district placement has its limits, said Doug Cheney, an assistant professor in the special education department at the University of Washington.

They are limited in time to six month-, one-year and two-year programs.

"You can’t refer them out forever," he said. And the big benefits of those programs — highly trained personnel, intensive therapy, low staff-to-student ratios — are gone when the student comes back.

"Residential care helps students for the time they’re there, but the after-care is not always coordinated well," Cheney said. "When the student returns home, either to the family or another guardian, all those supports are lost."

In the past, Stanwood has placed students with behavioral disabilities outside the district, said Steve Bodnar, interim district superintendent. Stanwood had 5,368 students in its schools last month; 596 qualify for special education services.

For many years, the special education program in the Marysville School District was a magnet because of its specialized staff and services. But the school district is no longer taking students from outside the district, said Peggy Ellis, principal at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.

"We’re brimming here," Ellis said, adding that about 290 children are in the special education program there.

Attitudes toward disabled children have changed greatly over the years, and Ellis said many special education teachers have a mindset for making a difference, despite the challenges.

"It’s the hardest job there is," Ellis said.

"A first-grade teacher takes kids who can’t read and teaches them to read," she said, while a special education teacher will go through 180 school days and see their student only progress to counting up to three.

"Special ed teachers are kind of the save-the-world people. They want to take everybody and save them.

"But they do a nice job of saving their part of it."

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