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Administration Backs Disabled Girl in 'Inclusion' Case

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The Clinton Administration, signaling it will take a strong stand in controversies involving disabled students' desires to be educated with other children, has joined in a California lawsuit involving a mentally retarded girl who wants to attend her neighborhood school.

The U.S. Justice Department in late July filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 11-year-old Rachel Holland of Sacramento, Calif.

In a widely reported decision last year, a federal court ordered Sacramento school officials to allow Rachel to attend classes with her nondisabled peers. The case is now pending before a federal appellate court.

The Administration's action in the case points up growing interest nationwide over whether disabled students should be "fully included'' in their school programs.

Backers of full inclusion contend that all children, regardless of disability, should be taught alongside nondisabled classmates.

Critics counter that regular classrooms are not appropriate for everyone. Moreover, they contend, schools may be sacrificing much-needed special-education services in the rush to embrace the concept.

The federal government's action in the Rachel Holland case represents a break from past policies. The Bush Administration refrained from taking sides in such disputes.

"I can't speak for the previous Administration,'' said Judith Heumann, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. "We believe in inclusion for children with disabilities, and we will look for cases where we can be supportive.''

The Justice Department's involvement in the Holland case was prompted by the Education Department's request.

"This case illustrated a much broader problem than just one affecting the Holland child,'' said Ms. Heumann, a former disability-rights lobbyist. "My hope is that there's a message in our becoming involved in cases like this.''

Compliance Varies

Federal special-education law requires that disabled students be placed in the "least restrictive environment'' possible, which is often taken to mean the neighborhood school. But, as disability-rights groups and federal officials have pointed out, states' interpretations of that requirement vary widely.

In its brief before the appeals court, for example, the federal government notes that one-third of the states that submitted special-education plans for Education Department approval in 1991 did not comply with the least-restrictive-environment provision.

In Rachel Holland's home state of California, for example, only 3.16 percent of mentally retarded children were being taught in regular classrooms during the 1989-90 school year. In other states, the percentage of mentally disabled students in regular classrooms was as high as 59.6 percent.

The federal government does not argue in its brief that all disabled children should be in regular classrooms.

"Placement decisions must ... be driven by the individual child's abilities and needs, and not by some label assigned to a child's condition,'' it states. Sacramento school officials had urged the court to make its decision based on Rachel's category of disability.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments in the case on Aug. 12. As of last week, the court had not issued an opinion.

Rachel, in the meantime, entered the 4th grade last week at a private Jewish day school, according to her lawyer, Diane Lipton.

Oberti Case

Public school also opened last week in Clementon, N.J., without Rafael Oberti, another mentally disabled child whose courtroom battle to attend school with his nondisabled peers made national news.

A federal appeals court in May directed Clementon school officials to develop a more inclusive education plan for the boy. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.) The school district did not appeal that decision.

Rafael, however, remains in a private Christian school while special educators and psychologists begin the process of re-evaluating him for services.

The full-inclusion idea has been eliciting complaints from some teachers as more school districts seek to return disabled pupils to regular classrooms.

In a recent poll conducted by the New York State United Teachers, a majority of teachers said they have been forced to devote less time to their nondisabled students since disabled students entered their classes.

"Without the necessary training, staff assistance, and development that go hand in hand with placement of disabled students into general-classroom settings,'' said Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., the union's president, "both general-education and disabled students will be cheated.''

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