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Spec.-Ed. Review Spurs Threat To Cut Off Funds

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The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has threatened to cut off federal education funding to the Chicago school system and the state of Illinois after finding pervasive problems in private schools enrolling disabled students from the district.

Students were placed in private facilities where they did not receive adequate educational services, and state officials were negligent in regulating the schools, federal officials charge.

"The widespread knowledge of the substandard services at these schools among the special-education community, the obvious nature of the problems upon direct observation, and their continuation over many years'' indicate that officials should have known of the violations, the O.C.R. said in its report on the investigation.

In Dec. 3 notices to state and local officials, in which the O.C.R. threatened to cut off education aid, the agency cited incidents where a student in a wheelchair was tied to a pole, ambulatory students were tied into wheelchairs, and students were forced to use toilet facilities without adequate privacy.

The O.C.R. determined that the Chicago school district had violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to insure that the students in question--a majority of whom have cognitive disabilities--received the "free, appropriate public education'' they are guaranteed under those laws.

The O.C.R. also found that the state board of education had violated those statutes because its procedures and standards for approving educational facilities resulted in discrimination against the students because of their disabilities.

According to Sue Gamm, the director of monitoring compliance for the Chicago district's department of special education and pupil-support services, the O.C.R. is negotiating an agreement with the district under which it will come up with a plan for serving in the public schools as many students with cognitive disabilities as possible.

The district will also devise procedures to insure that any private schools receiving Chicago students can provide all the services outlined in their "individualized education plans,'' which federal regulations require for each disabled student.

The state official in charge of licensing private schools declined to comment on the agreement his department is working out with the O.C.R., but Ms. Gamm said federal officials are asking the state to increase staff-certification requirements for private facilities.

Kenneth Mines, the director of the O.C.R. regional office that serves Illinois, said he hopes to have an agreement with state officials sometime next week.

A Longstanding Concern

Some observers said the Chicago situation dates back as far as 20 years.

The district pays tuition to place most of its seriously disabled students in private schools, a common practice nationally. Some 3,000 disabled Chicago students were placed in about 60 such private schools in the 1991-92 school year, and often form the entire enrollment of those schools.

In 1991, a special-education professional filed a complaint with the O.C.R. alleging that Chicago students were being placed in inadequate facilities. The complainant cited two schools, but later helped the O.C.R. locate others. The subsequent investigation eventually included visits to nine schools, which are not identified in the report.

Because investigators found that inadequate state oversight and state regulations that treat private schools more leniently than public facilities were important factors, the O.C.R. initiated a second complaint against the state board.

For example, the state requires only that one teacher certified in a student's primary disability be employed in the facility where he is placed, although many students have more than one disability.

In addition, only 25 percent of the staff at a private school needs to be certified at all.

"You could have an emotional disturbance, and the teacher could be certified in secondary school economics,'' said the complainant in the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While the O.C.R. probe focused on the schools' failure to provide educational services, the report also cited "dilapidated'' and "unsanitary'' facilities, as well as "gross infringement of personal privacy and individual dignity of students.''

Richard Basden, the manager of the school-approval section of the state education agency's department of recognition and supervision, which is responsible for insuring that school facilities comply with state rules, said he had not evaluated the validity of the findings and thus would not comment.

"We don't know who [the O.C.R.'s] outside 'experts' are,'' he said.

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