Fla. District Criticized for Moving Students Out of Special Centers
The Broward County, Fla., school district is facing criticism from parents of students with disabilities who do not want their children moved from special education centers to regular schools.
The southeastern Florida district is in the process of moving 30 to 40 such students, most of whom have mental retardation, into regular schools, as a result of a December 1997 agreement with federal civil rights officials.
That year, federal officials ordered the 233,000-student district to step up its efforts to include more students with disabilities in regular schools and classes. The officials acted under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Subsequently, the district reviewed the individualized education plans, or IEPs, of about 700 students attending the county's six special education centers and opted to move some of them to regular schools. In addition, the federal agreement required that the county offer additional support services to special education students and teachers in secondary grades, and give parents and IEP team members more options when choosing a student's placement.
The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights declined to comment on the case last week because it involves an ongoing investigation, a department spokesman, Rodger Murphey, said. The OCR routinely investigates districts such as Broward County where data show disproportionate numbers of disabled students in segregated classes.
But at least one school board member and many of the parents of the Broward County students whose IEPs are being reviewed are angry. They contend that the OCR has imposed on the district's and parents' judgment.
"Is OCR now becoming the office of certain rights?" said Judie S. Budnick, a member of the county school board who has helped organize parents to push for greater parental control over their children's placements. "They should be looking at all children's rights."
Broward County does have a higher-than-average percentage of students in the special schools--about 18 percent, compared with about 5 percent in the rest of the state, Ms. Budnick acknowledged.
But she maintained that the students' disabilities are so severe that they should be served in a restricted environment. And, she added, many parents with severely disabled children have moved to Broward County because of its high-quality educational services for children with disabilities and state-of-the-art, well-staffed special education centers.
"People are moving from all over the country because of the programs we have," she said. "These parents want these kids to be in the centers."
Fay Clark, the Broward district's director of support services and exceptional-student education, said the district was working with the parents and the OCR to provide more options, including regular school placements, for students with disabilities.
The OCR investigators "are not telling us we didn't need to have separate schools, just that there are some students that didn't need to be in the separate schools," Ms. Clark said. Some parents, she added, were not familiar with the duties of the IEP team, which includes special and regular education teachers, an administrator, specialists, and sometimes other experts, as well as the parents.
"We had a group of parents who were confused and thought the law entitled the parent to make the choice, and didn't realize it was a team choice," Ms. Clark said.
The district is filing periodic reports with the OCR on the changes it has made, she added.
Vol. 18, Issue 30, Page 6