With six months remaining before Virginia schools are required to fully comply with a far reaching federal law providing handicapped children with the same educational opportunities as other children, the 141 public school systems vary in their progress toward compliance.
According to state and local offficials, some school systems already comply with the requirements of PL 94-142 - the Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed in 1975 - while others are reluctantly scrambling to develop programs that the state, for the first time, will monitor.
The law says that each handicapped child must receive "a free appropriate education . . . in the least restrictive environment." Once a child is identified as handicapped, an individualized education program, approved by parents, is drawn up.
Since 1972, a Virginia law has required substantially the same things as federal law. For the past several years most Northern Virginia school systems have complied with the state law, although critics say compliance has been grudging. State officials note that the crunch is coming this year because, some jursidictions never bothered to obey the state law and must quickly develop programs before next fall.
"The state hasn't pursued compliance with the vigor it should," said state Special Education Director James Micklem. "Some of the localities thought the state would be big brother, would protect 'em. They didn't get excited until the federal law was passed."
School officials in Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington say they are placing increased emphasis on identifying handicapped students and are offering refresher courses in special education for teachers and administrators.
But some Arlington parents complain that school officials are defensive and paternalistic when it comes to educating handicapped children. "Most people - including teachers - don't understand labels," said Richard Blocker, director of student services in Arlington. "They see handicapped youngsters as being retarded or bizarre. Youngsters who have problems like physical hadicaps do act less normal than others, but if you put all peculiar-acting youngsters together they'll continue acting peculiar because that's all they see."
Blocker's statement underscores the rationale behind mainstreaming, one of the most controversial and least understood aspects of the federal law. Mainstreaming means that, whenever possible, handicapped children are integrated into classes with non-handicapped children. Sometimes this means adjustments as simple as seating hard-of-hearing students in the front of the class. Children with more severe handicaps may need help from specially trained teachers.
One Arlington mother said the success of mainstreaming and handicapped education varies considerably even within the Arlington school system. "Principals in Arlington are given a great deal of autonomy and they range from bright to absolutely assinine. Some have the 'get your horrible child out of my beautiful school' attitude. Besides, 80 percent of Arlington teachers won't go to (refresher courses)."
Arlington teachers say they feel particularly beleaguered in the wake of tight budgets and demands from an increasingly diverse but declining school population. "It's so different in Arlington now," said veteran teacher Beth Hoffman. "We used to have these ordinary, white middle-class kids, but now we've got lots of foreign kids, a lot of kids who are special in some way, and it takes a lot of work on the teachers' part."
Ashlawn Elementary School houses Virginia's only program for deaf-blind children, some of whom are partially mainstreamed. "Having the program here has been a real plus," said principal William Havens. "It really impresses the other kids to see what deaf-blind children can do in gym or music."
For years ago, according to Alexandria Special Education Director Harold Burke, that city had no programs for students with special learning problems. Now every school has a program, but Burke says the full impact of the federal law hasn't been felt yet. He notes that many parents are reluctant to have their children identified as handicapped because they fear their child will be stigmatized.
Officials in Prince William County are embroiled in a dispute over funding arising out of the federal law which provides massive infusions of federal funds to cover the excess cost of educating handicapped children. In order to provide for the nearly 60 handicapped students who will be entering the school system next year from private programs as well as those identified through a stepped-up program, the School Board requested $2.2 million from the County Board of Supervisors.
That request has been met with vehement protests by several members of the Board of Supervisors.
"It's time the School Board stopped rolling over and playing dead" in the wake of state and federal laws, said Woodbridge Supervisor Alice Humphries. "If we don't have taxpaying citizens, then we don't have tax money. We must continue to put money into programs for average students" who will be taxpayers.
This year Virginia is providing consultants to school systems around the state to help them comply with the federal law. However, Rick Foster of the Charlottesville-based Public Interest Law Center says, "It's up to the school system to find these kids and the law is dependent on a lot of parents to enforce it. In rural areas parents are really reluctant to fight, or one parent will and then no one else wants to get involved."
Consultant Diane Newkirk, who travels all over the state working with school officials, teachers and parents, agrees. "Some school districts with 17,000 students will say, 'We don't have any emotionally disturbed kids because of the fine country living.' They don't have any programs for emotionally disturbed kids, so they don't have any emotionally disturbed kids."
Newkirk said that in some parts of the state, particularly the mountain areas of the southwest and southside, some handicapped children never go to school. "Parents in these communities are really intimidated by the schools. They wouldn't dream of asking for anything different. But in some cases these kids are better off because the community is more accepting. The demands in Northern Virginia for a kid to be normal are amazing."