Six-year-old Brooke Bennett was transferred from her Fairfax County public school by her parents last winter after she told them repeated stories about classroom disruptions and violence by a hyperactive classmate.
"We don't want to send our child to that school anymore. The teachers are spending all their time with the kids who are acting out," says Brooke's mother, Jody Bennett of Vienna.
"I believe in the concept of mainstreaming [teaching handicapped students in conventional classroom settings]. But if we're going to mainstream, we're going to have to provide some resources to support it."
Brooke Bennett's story underscores a simmering controversy in Fairfax county as parents, teachers and school officials debate the effectiveness of county efforts to educate hyperactive children and others with special needs.
At least six other families in the same Vienna neighborhood reportedly chose to send their children elsewhere after visiting Brooke's school, Forest Edge Elementary in Reston, one of many where special students mingle with those without handicaps.
While federal law requires that such students be "mainstreamed" whenever possible, many parents and teachers say the Fairfax school system provides inadequate support services and staffing to make the system work.
In interviews this week, teachers told of one hyperactive third grader who flung a pair of sharp-pointed scissors across the classroom, and another child who persisted in walking on the desktop.
Jane Ring, a kindergarten teacher at Greenbrier Elementary School, said demands by special students sometimes leave her so exhausted she can barely drive home at the end of the day.
The debate was heightened by a published report earlier this week telling of a hyperactive first grader at Forest Edge. The child was routinely isolated from his classmates in a cardboard enclosure at the back of the classroom. The child's parents, who said they were not informed of the isolation technique until five months after it had begun, removed him from the school a few weeks ago.
Hyperactively, one of many disabilities the schools must deal with, is a behavorial disorder for which neither a cause nor a cure has yet been determined.
Among the allegations of Fairfax teachers and parents interviewed.
That insufficient funding has led to delays of up to a full school year in placing children in special education programs -- programs in which students with more serious disabilities are removed from conventional classrooms.
That Fairfax administrators have failed to provide adequate numbers of trained personnel to aid teachers who may be having trouble with mainstreamed children in regular classes;
The school officials have failed to provide adequate in-service training to teachers who are not familiar with the needs of handicapped children.
"I'd say the school district is woefully inadequate [in preparing teachers to meet the needs of handicapped youngsters]," says Gerry Gripper, president of the Fairfax Education Association, an organization representing the bulk of the county's teachers.
"I've seen too many times where the situation in the classroom becomes a situation where you can merely cope until help comes. And oftentimes, help doesn't come for months -- and sometimes not even in that particular school year," Gripper said.
School officials point out that the county's special education budget has grown markedly over the past few years. Serving approximately 13,00 public school students, or about 10 percent of the county's total enrollment, the special education received $36.8 million this year -- or almost $16 million more than in fiscal 1977.
"The county has supported special education and will continue to support it," said special services director Beatrice Cameron, adding that 40 more special education employes will be added next year.
"For folks who feel they haven't gotten the right services, I can only direct them in how to obtain them."
A senior school officials, Ron Savage, assistant superintendent for instructional services, acknowleged yesterday that there difficulties.
"I know it [mainstreaming] is a problem. I guess we're talking about a matter of degree," he said "I wouldn't say its an insurmountable problem, or one that significantly affects the quality of education in Fiarfax County."
At the center of the debate in Fairfax, as elsewhere, is Public Law 94-142, federal legislation passed in 1975 that requiries school districts to provide handicapped students with a "free appropriate" education in the "least restrictive" environment.
Congress said that handicapped children, just as minority, should be integrated with their peers to counteract prejudice and to ensure that all children receive a quality education.
But as the parents of handicapped children around the county try to exercise these new-found rights, schools have found themselves strapped by an increased financial burden.
Dr. Larry Silver, an associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says it may well be impossible for school districts to comply with the law, serve all the handicapped students who needs help and still stay within their present budgets.
"Of course, the same communities who are calling for increased help are defeating bond issues -- and that's a big part of this whole craziness," he says.
That analysis offers little comfort to parents such as Stephanie Covington of Burke, who says her 13-yer-old learning-disabled and hyperactive daughter has spent the current school year at home while school officials were determining which special education program is best for her.
School adminstrators decided this month that Tiffany Covington will attend a private school at county expense beginning next fall, but her mother says county foot dragging caused the girl to miss a full year of school. $"Unless the child has a visible handicap, unless they have braces or a wheelchair or are mentally retarded, the school district won't do a damn thing -- and that's what makes me so angry," Mrs. Covington says.
"These kids are falling through the cracks in the system."