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Parents Fight Changes in Special Ed

L.A. Unified: The effort to place children in regular classes meets stiff resistance. District hopes to cut its spending on private schools, agencies.


An effort by the Los Angeles Unified School District to offer special education services at public schools rather than pay for care at more costly private schools and agencies has helped trigger a wave of litigation, primarily from parents in West Los Angeles and the west San Fernando Valley.

A growing contingent of parents is dissatisfied with the shift toward in-house services, an approach advocated by Roy Romer shortly after he was named district superintendent two years ago. Partly as a result, Romer said, the number of requests for special legal hearings to resolve disputes has doubled since 1999 to nearly 1,000 annually.

The district is legally obligated to tailor an education plan to each of its 86,000 special education students who have disabilities ranging from traumatic brain injury to auditory processing difficulties. When a parent and the district disagree over a plan, either can request mediation or a hearing before a state officer to settle disputes.

Some parents and attorneys say school officials purposely are denying services to cut costs, knowing that few parents have the resources to hire an attorney to challenge the district.

"The public system doesn't have the tools, the trained staff or the capabilities to serve these kids," said Raja Marhaba, a Granada Hills parent who has recently hired a lawyer to attain private services for her two children. "There are kids falling through the cracks."

The district now spends about $145 million a year on outside contractors and private schools for special education services that are unavailable in district schools. That's more than double the amount paid in 1997. The costs are worrisome to a cash-strapped district that earlier this year scrambled to make cuts--even increasing class size in some grades--to avert a budget shortfall.

District officials say they will soon be able to provide better special education services within public schools at a far lower cost. Moreover, they say, a federal consent decree requires that the district accommodate more special education students in regular classrooms; a massive initiative is already planned to move students out of special centers and into the mainstream.

Romer said some parents misinterpret the district's obligation to provide a "free and appropriate public education" under federal law to mean they can garner all the services for their children that they see fit.

"We can't allow a system to develop where there's a cottage industry of suing the district," Romer said.

One reason for the rise in the number of hearings is that under Romer the district has limited referrals to private schools that aren't under district contract.

Andrea Lorant said that policy leaves her in a bind. What the district is offering her son is "free and public," she said, "but it's not appropriate."

She said her 14-year-old son, David, who suffers from Tourette's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, was given a new lease on life when he was admitted, at district expense, to a private academy in Sherman Oaks three years ago. There, he made new friends and got straight A's one semester.

At that time, Lorant said, the district agreed during mediation that it couldn't provide services that David needed in its public schools. In May, however, the district notified her that it could serve David in-house, offering him a placement at El Camino Real High School, a public school in Woodland Hills. It no longer wanted to reimburse the $18,000 a year tuition for the private school, but was offering extra help with schoolwork, sessions with a counselor and a special P.E. program.

She refused the offer and now faces a hearing Sept. 26.

"If I put him at El Camino, he would be in classes with 34 to 38 students as opposed to five to eight like he is now," Lorant said. "He really struggles socially. It would be a huge challenge for him."

Mainstreaming Students

Many parents favor mainstreaming their disabled children in regular public schools, but they say the district first needs more one-on-one therapists, classroom aides and smaller classroom sizes. District officials say L.A. Unified suffers from a national shortage of speech and language therapists, which has contributed to the rise in requests for hearings.

The district has no comprehensive record of how much money is spent on such special education litigation. But a disproportionate number of disputes appear to arise in L.A. Unified compared with other districts in California, according to data kept by the California Special Education Hearing Office.

The district enrolls 13% of the state's disabled children, but accounted for 34% of all hearing requests in California last year. The greatest leap occurred in the 2000-01 school year, when the district garnered 37% of the requests statewide compared with 23% the previous year, when there was no private school policy.

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