Several thousand District children with learning disabilites are going unidentified or are not getting the help they need because they are waiting to be evaluated, according to school administrators in charge of placing students in citywide special education programs.
The situation places more responsibility on parents to watch for signs that their children are having difficulty, school officials warn, because without special help many of these children will develop behavior and self-esteem problems and eventually drop out of school.
Richard Henning, director of citywide school services, and Edward Galiber, a placement specialist, said as many as 2,000 students in D.C. public schools may be falling through the cracks because many teachers and principals don't recoginize that a child needs special help until it is too late.
Once authorities suspect a problem, critics say, the school system also takes too long to determine if a child actually has special needs. The school system currently has a backlog of 1,200 to 1,300 students waiting to be evaluated by specialists, Galiber said.
Lillian Gonzalez, assistant superintendent of the Division of Special Populations, called the allegations "unfounded and unsubstantiated." But she also acknowledged that the volume of more than 1,000 new cases a year at the school system's four assessment centers makes it difficult to get evaluations within the required 50 days.
The time limit was imposed by a 1972 court order that followed a parent's successful suit against the city, but Gonzalez said it is unrealistic to expect for a process that requires a team of professionals. And it is harsher than in any other local jurisdictions, some of which have up to 180 days do evaluations.
But here in the District, many students wait six months or a full school year to be evaluated, said Sheri DeBoe, deputy director of the Information, Protection and Advocacy Center for Handicapped Individuals. The center receives federal funds to assist District parents who have children with special needs.
DeBoe said her group got more complaints from parents last year than ever, and most are saying that the school system is taking too long to evaluate their children.
Some also wait for placement. After 3 1/2 years of waiting, Sarah E. Cropper, a grocery store clerk, last year withdrew her son Vashnile, now 13, from the D.C. public school system, and sent him to a $12,000-a-year school for which she must pay 80 percent. She said he was not getting the help he needed in regular classes to overcome dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Finally this summer she was told there is room at Buchanan Secondary Learning Center, one of six special centers in the city. But she said she is opting to keep him at Chelsea School in Silver Spring.
"If he had been placed at Buchanan some time ago that would be fine," Cropper said. But "I don't see placing him in one situation and then pulling him out if he is doing well."
Beth Goodman, a lawyer who helps parents who have chilren with disablities, said parents such as Cropper often turn to her because they can't get the school system to respond any other way. "They come out of desperation," she said. She and three other lawyers in her office spend most of their time assisting District parents with disabled children who have decided to take legal action against the city, she said.
Allegations that the District is not identifiying many children who need special education is underscored by statistics. Washington has a lower percentage of students in special education than the national average: 7.5 percent versus nearly 11 percent. Gonzalez said 7.5 percent is well within the norm.
But in 1988 and 1989, when total school enrollment declined by 5 percent, the number of students enrolled in intensive special education programs declined 21 percent and the number enrolled in special education as a whole dropped 15 percent, according to the school system's figures. Gonzalez said she could not explain the drop but suggested that some students may not have been counted.
But school board member Karen Shook (At-Large) said the District's special education enrollment figures are "far below" the national average, and that troubles her. Shook heads the Special Education Commission, which will make recommendations to the school board by the end of the year on how to improve the program.
Critics of the program say the school system isn't spending enough money on special education. It needs more teachers, more programs inside neighborhood schools, and more specialists to evaluate the children, they say. The District now allocates a considerably smaller percentage of its budget for special education than other jursdictions in the region, Henning said. The city spends 7.5 percent of its school budget on special education; suburban jursdictions spend between 10 and 15 percent, he said.
The school system has 6,153 students in special education programs. Those with the most critical needs attend the special centers. Others go to special daylong programs within their neighborhood schools; still others are taken out of regular classes for some special instruction each day. About 325 are sent to private day schools at a cost to the city of $6.5 million to $7 million per year, Henning said.
Many of the children attending private schools at taxpayers' expense are students from families who could afford to hire lawyers to sue the city, Henning and Galiber said. Children from poor families don't have that muscle.
Neither do children of Hispanic immigrants, who often have special needs that go unidentified or who don't receive the help they need because the city's does not have enough bilingual special education teachers and psychologists, said Henning and Galiber.
Galiber said many parents say they are pleased once their children get into special schools, especially one of the special centers. Gonzalez said the school system is mainstreaming special-needs chldren as much as possibe.
Gonzalez also said the city is trying to sensitize teachers to better identify and work with children with special needs. On Tuesday, she said, all school employees were scheduled to participate in daylong workshops in each school to create "action plans" to better integrate special-needs children with other students.
She said the school system also is moving toward holding principals personally responsible for the education of children with special needs. The problem with that, said critics, is that some principals are openly hostile toward special education programs.
Galiber said some principals want to move special education students out of the schools because they lower the school's test scores and "make the principals look bad."
Principals already have too much power, said Richard Sowell, whose son has special needs. He said his son's junior high school principal created a rule that special-needs students could not earn a grade higher than a "C" in their regular classes. The reason: The principal said he did not want special needs students to be on the honor roll.
Sowell said he appealed to school officials, but they would not overrule the principal. Sowell eventually hired a lawyer and the District now pays for his son to go to a private school.
Parent Sarah Cropper advises parents who think their children might have special needs: "With D.C. public schools, if you don't get out there and really demand, it's one of those things that will drag" on and on. Procedures if Your Child May Need Special Education +
If your child is 3 to 21 years old and is physically or mentally handicapped, has a learning disability or is seriously emotionally disturbed, the D.C. public school system is required to provide with a free education designed for the child's special needs within the least restrictive school setting possible.
Even if your child is simply not performing well at school, you have the right to have the child tested to see if a learning disability exists.
To find out if your child belongs in a special education program, tell the principal at the neighborhood school that you want your child evaluated. Put the request in writing, say advocacy groups. Ask for the Comprehensive Student Services Form, and fill it out. In addition, ask for a pamphlet that explains your rights.
Because of a court order, the school system must evaluate your child within 50 calendar days of your request. The evaluation is done by a team of specialists, which may include a psychologist, a social worker and a speech therapist.
You also can request that the school give your child six weeks of special tutoring or counseling in order to see if the child really has special needs or is just experiencing a temporary emotional problem.
Teachers and counselors also can ask for an evaluation, but a parent must give written consent before a child is given special tests or is placed in a special education program.
Many children can obtain special education services in their neighborhood schools. Some are taken out of their classes a few hours a week for tutoring, and others are put in special classes most of the day. More severely handicapped children are sent to special schools.
If you do not agree with your child's evaluation or with the program in which the child has been placed, you can request a hearing.
If you are not satisfied, you can also contact the Information, Protection and Advocacy Center for Handicapped Individuals at 547-8081, which is financed by the federal government to assist parents who have children with special needs, at 547-8081.
A parent can register a complaint with the school system's ombudsman at 767-7065.
Staff writer Jenice Armstrong contributed to this report.
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