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Attention-Getting Problem : Parents, Schools in Ethical Tangle Over Pupils With Learning Flaw

March 22, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Chad Pinkerton, 11, has trouble staying in school.

Since 1980, according to his mother, he has been expelled or suspended from 12 of them throughout the state. "He can't do anything for very long," said Carol Pinkerton, 37.

Matthew Gualtieri's record is not much better. At age 10, he has already been in six elementary schools, from which he has been suspended or expelled 14 times. "His mind is constantly flitting off," explained his mother, Shar Gualtieri, 44. "He spends most of his time in the hall or in the principal's office."

Both boys are victims of Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, a condition that psychiatrists say makes it almost impossible for them to succeed in ordinary classroom settings.

Starts in Early Childhood

"It has a very strong biological component," said psychiatrist James H. Satterfield, medical director of the National Center for Hyperactive Children in Encino. "Most parents date the onset from very early childhood."

Believed caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, Satterfield said, the malady is characterized by an extremely short attention span and the inability to sift out external material in order to focus on whatever is at hand. While some victims suffer quietly, he said, others become hyperactive, expressing their frustration by engaging in the kinds of disruptive behavior likely to get them suspended from public school.

Although medication can sometimes help, he said, the only solution for many is years of therapy and special education. The result is a legal and ethical morass.

Some Say District Fails Its Obligation

On one hand, angry parents like Pinkerton and the Gualtieris--whose children have been repeatedly suspended for transgressions ranging from fighting with other children to cussing out their teachers--are charging the Long Beach Unified School District with failing to fulfill its obligation under state and federal law to provide a free and "appropriate" education.

On the other hand, officials of the district say that ADD is primarily a behavioral problem whose victims do not necessarily qualify for special education.

"They're violating my child's rights," said Pinkerton, a single parent who recently took an extended leave of absence from her job as an operating room nurse so she could personally educate her son at home until a more appropriate solution can be found.

Counters Frank Davis, the district's senior psychologist who oversees the testing of children for admission to special education classes: ADD "may not be a learning disability."

It Eludes Test Measurement

At the heart of the matter is the issue of just what constitutes special education and who it is intended to serve. State and federal laws require public school districts to provide children in their jurisdictions with free and appropriate educations. In most districts, including Long Beach, that has been interpreted to mean special classes for children with severe physical handicaps, hearing and speech impediments, or specific learning disabilities that show up in cognitive tests designed to measure academic ability.

The problem for children with ADD, Davis said, is that their condition often does not affect their ability to learn as measured by those tests. "(Eligibility) requires a degree of handicap to where it (severely) affects their working level," he said.

State guidelines require that special education students be significantly behind in their studies, a situation, Satterfield said, that does not always apply to ADD children who are often unusually bright. And disruptive behavior borne of frustration, Davis said, does not in itself qualify a child for special education.

"You can't plan an educational program on the basis of a medical diagnosis any more than a physician plans medical treatment on the basis of an educational diagnosis," Davis said.

Critics, however, argue that such thinking can be devastating not only to children with ADD, but to other members of the regular classes to which they are consigned.

Breena Satterfield, Richard's wife and clinical director of the same center, explained: "If I am the teacher and you can't wait for me to finish my sentence because the external stimuli are very exciting and have equal value in your head to what I am saying, then it becomes a three-ring circus. You are unable to inhibit your impulse to speak. It's sort of like feel it, do it; they think it and it happens."

Often, she said, the situation is exacerbated by the reactions of unsuspecting teachers and classmates, whose reprimands succeed only in making the ADD child even more unruly. "By the age of 9 some of these kids are very angry," she said. By the age of 17, she said, 48% have become felony delinquents.

Parents Start to Complain

District officials say they have no idea how many ADD children attend Long Beach schools. The Satterfields estimate that as many as 6% of the school-age population suffers from ADD. Lately some of their parents have begun to complain.

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