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'Full Inclusion' of Disabled in Regular Classes Favored

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Schools should fully explore ways to teach students with disabilities in regular classrooms before segregating them in special-education settings, a federal judge has ruled in a New Jersey case.

The ruling last month in Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District is at least the second this year favoring what is called "full inclusion'' of severely and moderately disabled students in classes with nondisabled pupils. Until recently, such students were commonly taught in separate settings or were removed from class to receive help in special-education resource rooms.

But experts say these recent decisions may be the first of many to come, as growing numbers of special educators and advocates begin to call on schools to serve children with disabilities in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

In the New Jersey case, U.S. District Judge John F. Gerry said Clementon school officials violated federal special-education law by failing to consider whether an 8-year-old with Down's syndrome, Rafael Oberti, could have managed in a regular class with special aides, a special curriculum, or a behavior-management plan.

The boy, whose I.Q. places him in the educable mentally retarded range, had been taught over the years in a variety of settings. At one time he had been placed in a full-time, special-education class in another district; for a time, he had also spent half a day in a developmental kindergarten class with nondisabled children and the other half in a special-education class.

Clementon officials contend, however, that his disabilities are so severe and his classroom behavior so disruptive that he can only be educated in a separate class.

Judge Gerry disagreed.

"Rafael should not have to earn his way into an integrated school setting by first functioning successfully in a segregated setting,'' he wrote. "Inclusion is a right, not a privilege for a select few.''

Judge Gerry said he based his decision on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which calls for serving children with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment,'' and on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees disabled people access to services provided by federally funded agencies.

California Case Cited

The opinion also drew heavily on the decision in a recent California case involving a 9-year-old girl with mental retardation. In that case, known as Holland v. Sacramento City Unified School District, a federal district court ordered school officials to teach the child in a regular classroom.

The case, decided in February, has been widely heralded by some advocates for disabled people nationwide.

Judge Gerry stopped short, however, of ordering full inclusion for Rafael. He barred educators from placing the boy full time in a self-contained, special-education class, but left the door open for other arrangements by ordering school officials to "develop an inclusive education plan'' for Rafael.

The Clementon school district is appealing the ruling.

Thomas J. Murphy, a lawyer for the district, said the two cases differ because Rachel Holland, the child at the center of the California case, was not a behavior problem in class.

In contrast, Rafael disrupted class by hitting or otherwise harming classmates, running out of classrooms, refusing to crawl out from under chairs or other hiding places, and because he was not toilet-trained, Mr. Murphy said.

"If this child can be in a regular classroom, there's no limitation,'' he added.

Moreover, he said, "our position has always been that federal special-education law meant education first and inclusion second.''

Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University, predicted that lawsuits pressing for full integration will be on the increase in federal courts.

"All that's happened is that the philosophy among special educators--or at least the predominant or loud view--seems to be full inclusion,'' he said. "And that's percolating up to the judicial system.''

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