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Citing Public Reaction, Bell Delays Rules on Special Education

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Washington--Acknowledging an "enormous" outpouring of public sentiment on the Administration's proposed revision of regulations for special-education programs, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell announced last week that the final regulations will not be published until next year.

Secretary Bell also said, during the first of 11 public hearings scheduled throughout the country by the Education Department, that the department's proposed revisions to P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, may be published in the Federal Register in two stages. He added, however, that the decision was tentative.

'Controversial' Changes

The Secretary said that "some of the proposed changes are going to be more controversial than others," and that consequently he was considering withholding those provisions for further study before a final version is published next year. He said it would take that long to pour through the solicited comments, which the department will be accepting until November.

Among the provisions most likely to be withheld from the first round, according to Mr. Bell, are those covering "least restrictive environ-ment," parental consent, and deadlines governing individual education programs. He said the three provisions, in particular, had drawn a considerable amount of attention and concern, but that there are others that the department may need to revise.

The department unveiled sweeping revision proposals last month that would eliminate some current rules and redefine others. One significant new provision would allow school districts to apply "normal disciplinary standards" to handicapped students when their disruptive behavior is not caused by a handicapping condition (See Education Week, Aug. 18, 1982).

The proposed rules drew strong opposition from educational and advocacy groups for the handicapped. They charged that the Reagan Administration's desire to relieve the states of "overly prescriptive, intrusive, and burdensome" regulations through the deregulation process would infringe on the rights of the handicapped, particularly those covered by the key provisions the Administration is seeking to change.

Members of both the House and Senate also criticized the department's proposal, introducing one measure that disapproved the changes and another that would have forced the department to postpone the effective date of the new rules. Apparently responding to those concerns, Mr. Bell said last week that he was willing to hear and consider with an open mind all comments on the proposals.

During the two-day hearing, the department accepted comments from more than 150 individuals and representatives of educational and advocacy groups, including the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the American Psychological Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Association for Autistic Children, and the Children's Defense Fund.

'Clearly Unacceptable'

Frederick J. Weintraub, assistant executive director of The Council for Exceptional Children, said during the hearing that the proposed revisions were "clearly unacceptable." The organization opposed changes in the least-restrictive-environment provision and in provisions covering access to extra-curricular activities because they "could encourage the segregation of handicapped students."

The elimination of timetables and the reduction of comprehensive evaluations provided for under the current regulations, according to Mr. Weintraub, would result in delayed services and inappropriate placements. And he noted that the "deliberate vagueness" of the related-services provision "will ultimately prove more confusing than constructive."

Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, testified in favor of the revisions, calling them "badly needed and overdue." He urged the department to adopt "most of the proposed initiatives, and do so without considerably more delay."

Mr. Thomson said the broad scope of the related-services provision under the current regulation has "often imposed upon school officials and administrators completely unreasonable obligations."

He added that the proposed definition of related services, which would permit the schools to establish "reasonable limitations" on the services they provide to students, would be "extremely helpful" to school officials.

"The new approach should also provide the opportunity for educators and administrators at state and local levels to demonstrate their own concern for the needs of handicapped children, free of the coercive and adversarial atmosphere imposed by the existing regulations," said Mr. Thomson, whose comments were met with boos and jeers from many handicapped individuals and supporters attending the hearing.

Joanne Goldsmith, vice-president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said her organization's response to the rule changes was mixed. She said the proposed elimination of excessive paperwork and data collections was "commendable."

However, Ms. Goldsmith said, the procedural safeguards are integral to the protection of handicapped students. She said she is concerned that the partnership with parents may be weakened under the department's proposal and warrants careful scrutiny before any changes are made.

Calling the department's least-restrictive-environment proposal ambiguous, Ms. Goldsmith said the change could result in an increase in due-process hearings and court challenges. The current requirement that school districts place handi-capped children in programs close to their home and that they participate with nonhandicapped children in extracurricular activities would be eliminated under the department's proposal.

Donna J. Yeager and Stephanie Thomas, both of whom are peer counselors for the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia, said during the hearing that they opposed the revisions.

Ms. Thomas, who was disabled after she graduated from high school, said that she became aware of the "personal prejudices that interfere" with the educational process after she became handicapped. She said that "special education all too often means inferior education" and that the proposed rules would work against equal educational opportunity for the handicapped.

Ms. Yeager, a quadruple amputee, said that parental consent and involvement are crucial. She said that her parents were not told of the testing she received while in school, nor were they told of assessments made of her potential as a student.

Handicapped children should not have "to fight for their education like I did," Ms. Yeager said.

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