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Judge Orders Pa. To Help Insure Proper Spec.-Ed. Services

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A federal judge has ordered the state of Pennsylvania to take a greater role in insuring that school districts provide appropriate services and programs for disabled children, including those who are difficult to place.

The order, issued late last month by U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia H. Rambo, requires the state public-welfare department to collaborate with the education department and other agencies in making sure that children with disabilities receive proper services.

"It confirms that the state has responsibility for dealing with this issue, instead of leaving it up to the vagaries of school districts,'' Leonard Rieser, the plaintiff's lead counsel, said of the court order.

The judge's order directed that the placement of each child occur in the "least restrictive environment'' and that the range of service options "be based on the community and family of the student'' so that students could remain to the extent possible in their home communities and in family settings.

Mr. Rieser said that some districts, unable to find appropriate settings nearby, have sent disabled students to other parts of the state or even to other states.

The order also barred the widespread practice of providing instruction in the home as a substitute for appropriate placement.

Judge Rambo's decision represented the remedies to a class action against the state won last year by the plaintiffs, who are disabled students and their parents.

In ruling last June, Judge Rambo found that the state had violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act by failing to insure "the provision of a full continuum of appropriate placements for students with disabilities'' so that a proper placement could be found within a reasonable amount of time.

Some students have gone months or years without a proper placement, Mr. Rieser said.

Emotional Disabilities

Judge Rambo's ruling affected children whose parents and school districts agree that the placement they need is not currently available and who have been waiting at least 30 days for such a placement, or who are "at substantial risk'' of being in that situation.

Most often it is children with emotional disabilities whose placements have confounded districts.

The number of children affected by the order is unknown, but estimates range from 50 to several hundred statewide.

For those children, the judge said, the state must make sure that districts:

  • Maintain an ongoing system for identifying children who lack appropriate placements;
  • Determine which areas of the state lack an adequate continuum of program and placement options and the types of options that are lacking;
  • Enlarge the range of options in those areas where it is found inadequate; and
  • Provide compensatory education to children who have had to wait for appropriate services.

The ruling ordered creation of state and local interagency teams to help insure placements are found and developed for children.

The state was also directed to conduct a study of what it must do to comply with the court order, and to make regular reports to the court.

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