Sunday, January 14, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Special education a victim of misconceptions

By Laura Brown
Parent advocate for special needs children

A misinformed public, our state bureaucracy and the Legislature are losing sight of the intent of the Felix consent decree. This federal law is intended to provide an education to children of special needs.

We have several concerns about what’s happening in our state:

Buying bureaucracy, not services.

There is a very good explanation why Hawaii is having such a difficult time meeting the mental health needs of a small group of Hawaii’s children. The escalating costs of special education result from the state’s inclusion of a Comprehensive Student Support System in the Felix consent decree.

CSSS is not relevant to the Felix consent decree. In reality, CSSS exists to align state agencies to provide all students with an encompassing system of support.

Attributing costs solely to "Felix" is inaccurate. In a 1998 audit report, only $33 million (federal funding provided $32 million) could be peripherally linked to state Department of Education Felix costs. Of that amount, $11 million funded 100 percent of the A-Plus program. Ironically, many special-needs children are excluded from A-Plus due to lack of available supervision.

Simply stated, State Auditor Marion Higa found that approximately 20 percent of the 1998-99 appropriations went to programs that also may serve special-needs children. The balance went to non-Felix-related activities such as administrators, the A-Plus Program, travel and school security.

Special-ed children in regular classrooms.

Assuming 87 percent of Hawaii’s 20,128 special-education children are "mainstreamed" into regular education classes, all teachers must be trained immediately to accommodate different styles of learning in the classroom. Simply hiring more special-education teachers will not solve our problems.

Early and appropriate intervention is critical.

The public has been quick to blame parents for demanding special-educational services for their children. However, national studies conclusively show that early intervention is essential if the children are to acquire skills that will allow them to benefit from education and become independent adults.

The special-education maze.

Parents’ attempts to enter the special-education maze may actually be thwarted by CSSS, which has no procedural safeguards. A comprehensive evaluation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ’97) can only begin if a parent, teacher or concerned friend knows enough to say, "I suspect this child has a disability," and fills out the Request for Evaluation and Consent for Evaluation forms from a Student Services coordinator.

Learning disabilities are "hidden" and misunderstood.

Parents of children with learning difficulties face emotional barriers. Often, they do not automatically realize or want to admit that what they are dealing with is a "disability." Neurological deficits do not manifest as visible physical handicaps.

A child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder looks just like any other child. To the untrained person, the child may be labeled as a "behavior problem," when in fact the child’s behavior is made worse through mishandling by the untrained and ill-informed.

Qualified diagnosis is the key.

Only knowledgeable parents will ask for specific tests and independent evaluations by professionals such as audiologists, speech pathologists, educational examiners and psychologists who can help identify neurological or other non-visible learning disabilities.

Children should not just be treated by school-based psychologists just because the school says so. It may harm a child to be treated for poor self-esteem when the real problem is an auditory or visual-processing problem causing a reading disorder.

A free and appropriate education is the law.

Whether the parent can understand the need for an appropriate program or not, the IEP team must follow federal eligibility guidelines and determine the services necessary for a child to benefit from his education.

For a child with autism, this may mean an aide with a background in methodologies that build the child’s communication skills. For a child with processing deficits, it may mean tutoring using a multisensory, structured language approach in a quiet, less distracting setting.

The right program can only be determined through correct diagnosis of the problem. When a child is placed in the right program, results are instant.

Should we try to blame and shame parents of special-needs children into not asking for an appropriate education? The state will fulfill its obligations only by providing these services, not more bureaucracy.

Civil rights are not just for the few. All of our children are entitled to them. We need to stop kicking parents and children when they’re down.

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