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Chicago Group Sues Over Placement of Disabled Students

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Public schools in Chicago are unnecessarily and illegally segregating students with disabilities, a group of parents and advocates has charged in a federal class action.

The lawsuit, filed May 22 in federal district court, contends that state and local school officials are violating federal special-education and civil-rights laws by educating thousands of disabled students in separate classes or resource rooms or by busing them to special schools far from home.

Moreover, it argues, such students are further prevented from interacting with their nondisabled peers because they have few chances to take part in extracurricular activities.

"What happens now is children end up in too restrictive placements because those are the only placements available,'' Laura J. Miller, a lawyer for the parents in the case, said.

"We're saying there should be a continuum of placements,'' she added.

Ms. Miller, who is with the Northwestern University Legal Clinic, is representing the plaintiffs along with Designs for Change, a Chicago school-reform advocacy group.

The question of the degree to which disabled children should be integrated into regular classrooms has provoked much debate in recent years and has been the focus of numerous lawsuits. But class actions on the issue have been rare.

Lawyers for the Chicago parents said the widespread nature of restrictive placements in the city's schools prompted them to press the suit on behalf of all 40,000 disabled students in the district.

"Illinois is very far behind in terms of integration, and Chicago is more segregated than most of Illinois,'' Ms. Miller said.

'Moving as Fast as Possible'

According to federal data, Illinois ranks 46th among states in the degree to which disabled students are integrated into regular classes or are served in part-time resource rooms.

In Chicago, more than 70 percent of students with mild mental disabilities are educated in separate classes, according to a 1989-90 state analysis.

Efforts by the school system in recent years to serve more disabled children in regular schools have been met with some opposition from parents wary of losing hard-won services for their children and from regular teachers who feel ill-prepared to deal with disabled students.

According to Thomas Hehir, the associate superintendent for special education and pupil-support services for the school system, 27 district schools are developing model programs to educate disabled students in mainstream classrooms. He said the district has also taken steps to integrate its special schools and to encourage the remaining schools to, "at a minimum,'' offer services for students with mild to moderate disabilities.

"I think we're moving as fast as possible, given the level of concern and controversy this has engendered,'' said Mr. Hehir, who was hired in 1990 to reform the district's special-education system.

Distance Limits Participation

But the parents and lawyers who filed the suit said those efforts are not moving fast enough.

"I pay taxes in the community. I live in the community, and I work in the community,'' said Shirley Pulliam, the mother of a 13-year-old boy who is in a special school program in a suburb of Chicago. "I should be able to get services in the community for my son.''

Ms. Pulliam said her son, who has a severe communication disorder and a learning disability, must travel an hour and a half by bus to school each day. The distance, she said, has prevented his participation in basketball and kept him from making friends nearby.

Lawyers for Ms. Pulliam and the other parents in the lawsuit said federal special-education law requires schools to educate disabled children with nondisabled classmates to the "maximum extent appropriate to meet the needs of that child'' and to provide those services, whenever possible, in neighborhood schools.

They noted that the new Americans with Disabilities Act also bars discrimination against the disabled in all programs run by a public entity, including, they said, school extracurricular activities.

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