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Special Education Column

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The new preschool special-education program approved by the Congress in 1986 is proving to be more successful than its proponents had imagined.

According to a preliminary count last month by the U.S. Education Department, states increased preschool enrollment in handicapped programs by nearly 37,000 during the first year of the federal effort. That number is about 5,000 higher than the states predicted it would be after the Congress approved the program as part of PL 99-457, the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986.

Under the program, each state stands to receive $3,270 this year for each new handicapped 3- to 5-year-old served. That sum, awarded in addition to a basic $300 grant for every handicapped child already enrolled in such programs, is meant to be a "carrot'' to encourage states to seek out handicapped children who are not being served. It is based on the difference between the state's enrollment of handicapped preschoolers for the previous year and this year's enrollment.

For some states, one drawback to that funding formula has been that enrollment declines among handicapped preschoolers in some districts have offset the enrollment gains made through the program in others, resulting in a net "wash'' for the state.

As a result, some of the school districts that expanded their preschool programs in those states are receiving less than their full $3,270-per-child incentive grant, said Joseph Ballard, a lobbyist for the Council for Exceptional Children.

In an effort to correct that problem and ensure adequate funding for the unexpectedly high number of children being served, four education groups have joined to lobby the Congress for more funding.

The CEC, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education have formed a coalition to press for a total of $372 million for the program in the 1989 fiscal year--about $171 million more than they originally intended to request.

A number of advocacy groups for the disabled have taken the unusual step of asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take an electric-shock device off the market.

"Currently, no clinical trials are required for these devices, and we think this is appalling,'' said Luanna Meyer, who is spearheading the effort for the Association for the Severely Handicapped. She said TASH is being joined by 14 other national groups.

The device that is the target of the group's efforts is the Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System (SIBIS), an apparatus that delivers a shock of up to 84.4 volts when the wearer bangs his head. It is used as part of an aversive-therapy program for severely handicapped children and adults who exhibit constant, self-injurious behavior.

SIBIS was registered with the FDA under a law allowing manufacturers to bypass clinical trials if their products are "substantially equivalent'' to those on the market before 1976.

Ms. Meyer, who is also a professor of special education at Syracuse University, said the group is focusing on SIBIS because the device is self-activating, opening up possibilities for harm to those wearing it.

"There also seems to be no intention to ever remove it,'' Ms. Meyer said. "That clearly makes it a restraint device.''

Art Gimpelson, a spokesman for Human Technologies Inc., the manufacturer of SIBIS, said the system was not meant to be used as a permanent restraint. He said SIBIS has been so effective in curbing the self-injurious behavior of some wearers that they are able to function for increasingly long periods without it.

"We have equipment out to doctors and clinicians who have tried and exhausted all other means of preventing their clients from doing damage to themselves,'' he said. "How much better is it to put someone under a chemical restraint or in a foam jumpsuit with braces on their elbows and a hockey helmet?''

Between them, 10-year-old Bryan Tiscio and 9-year-old Nicholas Hendricks have received their special-education instruction in five different locations around Pennsylvania over the past four years. And, in September, their parents have learned, the two severely handicapped boys may have to change schools once again.

According to the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, Bryan and Nicholas are victims of the way Pennsylvania serves severely handicapped youngsters.

Such students come under the jurisdiction of "intermediate, special-education units,'' rather than local school districts, as is the case in other states. The regional units are dependent on districts for classroom space.

"But they have no legal claims, so when space gets tight the districts tend to squeeze out the intermediate kids,'' said Len Reiser, a lawyer for the center.

The center has filed a class action on behalf of severely handicapped students against Thomas K. Gilhool, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, in federal district court. By failing to provide classroom environments at least as adequate as those for their nonhandicapped peers, the lawsuit alleges, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is discriminating against handicapped students in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Debra Medvic, a department spokesman, said a formal response to the suit was being prepared and the department would have no other comment. DV

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