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Special Educators' Group Weighs In on 'Full Inclusion'

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SAN ANTONIO--After nearly three years of rancorous debate, the Council for Exceptional Children, the largest international organization of special educators, has weighed in on the movement toward "full inclusion'' of disabled students in classrooms with their nonhandicapped peers.

In a statement approved last week during its annual meeting here, the group says inclusion is part of a continuum of special-education services to which all disabled children are entitled. Such services and placements range from intensive teaching in separate schools to extra support in a regular classroom.

But the statement goes further by adding that inclusion is "a meaningful goal to be pursued by schools and communities.''

"Children and youth with disabilities should be served whenever possible in general-education classrooms in our schools and communities,'' the document states.

The issue of whether to fully include disabled children in regular schools has divided the special-education community for years. Although federal special-education law strongly encourages teaching children in such settings, disabled children are more commonly pulled out of classrooms to receive special help in separate rooms.

Advocates of full inclusion maintain that disabled children have a right to be in regular classrooms throughout the school day. Rather than pull disabled children out, they say, schools should bring the needed services and resources to the children, and special educators and classroom teachers should work together in teaching all students. (See Education Week, Nov. 18, 1992.)

Concerns Expressed

Many special educators--including some of the 6,000 participants at this five-day meeting--are concerned, however, that inclusion could lead to a reduction of services for the children who need help the most.

They point out that the regular classroom may not be the best setting for every child.

Violent or emotionally or behaviorally disordered children, for example, may pose a threat to themselves and their classmates. And deaf children, unable to communicate with classmates and teachers who do not know sign language, may feel more isolated than they might in separate schools.

As one conference participant noted last week, "It's important to remember that the way we got these kids in the first place was that regular education couldn't handle them.''

The inclusion movement has gained momentum in recent years as schools in general have begun to look at ways to reorganize themselves.

A number of advocacy groups have also become increasingly vocal in pushing for the concept, and some federal courts have begun to rule in favor of parents who want their children to be taught alongside their nondisabled peers.

Inclusion has "almost become a politically correct position,'' said Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University. "For the C.E.C., it was a question of taking a position now or never.''

Mr. Fuchs led a panel formed by the organization in 1990 to take a closer look at the inclusion issue. The policy statement approved by the council's delegate assembly last week is closely modeled on the recommendations of that panel.

Envisioning Inclusive Schools

The new statement attempts to place the inclusion issue and the role of special educators in the larger context of the school-reform movement by describing what "inclusive schools'' would look like.

It notes, for example, that such schools would be places in which the building administrator and staff members would be responsible for all of the students in the school--not just those who are nondisabled. Rules and regulations would be redefined, and staff members would have a greater say in decisions about staffing, instructional practices, and curriculum.

All of the teachers in the school would be provided with the training needed to work in these new settings.

And--perhaps most important for many special educators--the statement maintains that these newly reconfigured general-education classrooms must be strengthened by "an infusion of specially trained personnel and other appropriate supportive practices.''

One of the greatest concerns of special educators meeting here last week was that school administrators and policymakers might seize on inclusion as a way to stretch scarce education dollars. Thus, students could be "dumped'' back into regular classrooms with little or no support.

"A lot of school districts seem to be taking this as an opportunity to cut the budget,'' said Kerry Parks, a special educator in Round Rock, Tex. "What it's amounting to for those districts is a reduction or limitation to services for kids, and they're putting the 'inclusion' label on it and it flies.''

A Value Worth Articulating

Whether it is workable, however, other special educators here pointed out, inclusion is a value worth articulating.

"You miss a lot, socially and educationally, not being in a regular classroom,'' said Ronald Anderson, who was president of the council two years ago. Mr. Anderson, who is disabled, spent 12 years of his life in a residential school 100 miles from his home.

"In this field, there're lots of kids who are unduly separated, and we have to go on record saying this is what our preference is,'' he added.

The council, which also has members in Canada and 40 other countries, is the second special-education group this year--and the largest to date--to stake out a position in the inclusion debate.

In February, the Learning Disabilities Association condemned full inclusion, which it defines as the practice of placing all children, regardless of disability, in regular classrooms.

Groups advocating for adults and children with mental retardation and other severe handicaps have been longtime proponents of the practice. The National Association of State Boards of Education also weighed in on the matter last fall by strongly endorsing full inclusion.

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