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Disabled N.J. Boy Must Be Placed In Regular Class, Court Rules

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A New Jersey school district must teach a severely disabled boy in a regular classroom, a federal appeals court has ruled in a case that has attracted national attention.

The May 28 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit permits Rafael Oberti, an 8-year-old boy with Down's syndrome, to attend school in a class with nondisabled students.

School officials in Rafael's hometown of Clementon, N.J., had sought to keep the boy out of the regular classroom because they said his behavior would disrupt learning for the other children in his class.

Advocates for "full inclusion'' of disabled children in regular classrooms said the unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel sends "a clear signal'' to districts confused over whether to serve more of their disabled students in regular classrooms.

Districts "won't get into these kinds of situations anymore,'' said Frank L. Laski, a lawyer for Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represented the parents.

The district has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling in Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nationally Watched Case

The case became nationally prominent last year after a federal district court ruled in favor of the family. "Inclusion is a right, not a privilege for the select few,'' the district court ruled.

In less sweeping language, the appeals-court judges said they basically agreed with the lower-court ruling. They used a different standard, however, to arrive at the same conclusion.

The judges said they considered: "whether the school district has made reasonable efforts to accommodate the child in a regular classroom; the educational benefits available to the child in a regular class, with appropriate supplementary aids and services, as compared to the benefits provided in a special-education class; and the possible negative effects of the inclusion of the child on the education of other students in the class.''

The judges concluded that officials had not made a "reasonable effort'' to accommodate the child in a regular classroom and that the boy would benefit from being with nondisabled peers. Moreover, they said, school officials failed to prove Rafael's behavior problems would continue to occur if he were in a regular classroom with the proper supports and services.

School officials had testified that, as a student in a regular kindergarten class, the boy had frequent temper tantrums and touched, hit, and spit at other children and teachers.

"If the court thinks this child should be mainstreamed, there's probably not a child in the country that shouldn't be mainstreamed,'' said Thomas J. Murphy, the lawyer for the district.

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