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Colorado Parent Fights Plan To Enroll Retarded Daughter in Regular School

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By Debra Viadero

In an unusual departure from many special-education disputes, two Colorado agencies that oversee residential services for the handicapped are attempting to enroll a profoundly retarded Pueblo teenager in a local high school against the wishes of the girl's mother.

In keeping with a longstanding state policy of deinstitutionalizing the handicapped, the state agencies have recommended that 15-year-old Dorthy June Miller be moved from the institutional group home where she now lives to a smaller, less-restrictive group home.

From there, state officials maintain, Ms. Miller should be expected to attend classes at nearby Pueblo County High School.

But the teenager's mother argues that her daughter should remain where she is.

"She is getting all the care and therapy she really needs right now," said the mother, Judy Pierce. "She has no business being in a public school."

The dispute reached an impasse last week when a meeting called to develop a plan of services for Ms. Miller was abruptly cancelled after a state official complained that the normally confidential process had turned into a "freak show" attended by the local media.

Until the matter is resolved, Ms. Miller will remain at the state-operated Pueblo Regional Center, said James Duff, the director of the facility.

"We won't kick her out," he said. "It's just that the county developmental-disabilities board has got a vacancy right now and I have someone in mind who can fill it."

Federal Requirements

Federal special-education law requires only that handicapped children be taught in the "least-restrictive" environment possible. In many cases, parents of severely handicapped children are fighting to convince school systems that their neighborhood school is indeed the "least-restrictive" setting for their children.

Last December, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeal by the Rochester, N.H., school district, which had been ordered by a federal appeals court to serve a 13-year-old boy who is so profoundly retarded that experts disagree over his ability to respond to stimuli. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

Much less common are cases in which noneducational state agencies, such as those regulating services for the handicapped, press to mainstream children with disabilities.

"I think the state is pushing way beyond the intent of the law," said Michael Johnson, superintendent of Pueblo County School District 70, which serves Ms. Miller. "A parent has some right to say they don't want their child in a public-school setting."

Teenager's Handicaps

Left retarded by birth complications that deprived her brain of oxygen, Ms. Miller has lived in institutional settings most of her life.

She has impaired sight and hearing and is confined to a wheelchair. A psychologist who evaluated her last week said she has the mental capacity of a 1-month-old.

The teenager is also prone to respiratory infections, which her mother fears could be exacerbated by exposure to large numbers of children at a public school. Ms. Pierce also contends that the group home to which the state is considering moving her daughter provides less adequate care than her current institutional home.

'Getting to Bat'

The controversy over whether Ms. Miller should attend a regular school erupted earlier this year when a space opened up in a group home operated by the Pueblo County Developmental Disabilities Board, an agency under the state department of residential services.

In an effort to comply with the state's mandate for deinstitutionalizing handicapped people, the8staff at the state-operated center where Ms. Miller lives recommended moving the teenager into the smaller group home operated by the board.

The staff also suggested the move would enable Ms. Miller to attend a nearby high school with students her own age.

"My opinion is that Dorthy ought to have a chance at getting to bat," said Mr. Duff, the regional center's director. "If she strikes out we can always bring her back or go to plan B."

The developmental-disabilities board, however, said it would not accept the teenager unless Pueblo County school officials agreed to provide her with a school-based instructional program, rather than the homebound educational services she now receives.

"She needs to experience new environments other than the four walls of her bedroom," said Lawrence Velasco, executive director of the board.

Mr. Velasco noted that a neighboring school district serves a number of children "just as severely handicapped as Dorthy."

Exceeding Authority?

Local school officials contend the county disabilities board is exceeding its authority by forcing the mainstreaming issue. They agreed with Ms. Pierce that Ms. Miller would be better--and less expensively--served in her present group home.

Mr. Johnson estimated that it would cost the district $55,000 to serve the teenager at Pueblo County High School.

He said the school system would have to remodel a school bus and a classroom and hire or transfer a special-education teacher, a bus driver, two teacher aides, and a nurse.

If Ms. Miller stays at the group home, the district has offered to provide additional homebound services, including a part-time special-education teacher, a teacher's aide, some occupational-therapy services, and a part-time nurse's aide.

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