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September 21, 2002

"Parents Fight Changes in Special Ed" (Sept. 16) discusses how many parents of children needing special education services are balking at the efforts of the L.A. Unified School District to offer such services at public schools rather than paying for expensive private schools. Parents in West L.A. and the West Valley, in particular, are pursuing litigation because they can afford to and have private schools available to them.

I realize that this process of subsidized private education can be abused by the rich and greedy. However, what many parents are reacting to is not simply the effort to educate such students at public schools, but rather the plan to educate these students by simply placing them in regular classes.

As a fourth-grade teacher, I have had a number of students with special educational needs in my class who have done well, who have been accepted by their peers and who have shown great resiliency and motivation. However, not all students with such needs can function within a regular class, and right now the tendency within L.A. Unified is to push all children toward the regular classroom. I question whether such an approach is warranted.

Right now I have 32 students and am told I can go up to 36. Managing a class of that size so that effective learning occurs is serious business. Every teacher knows how just one student who is disruptive can shatter the balance needed. Many students with serious special needs do not mean to be disruptive, but their behaviors can simply be incompatible with the needs of the other students in the room. Nor can sufficient attention be paid to their needs in a crowded classroom.

L.A. Unified needs to very carefully examine the compatibility of special needs students and the regular classroom to make sure that optimal learning for all students can occur. Saving money is not the bottom line. Treating special education teachers and the special education programs of the LAUSD with more support and respect would be a good place to start. Then perhaps many parents who are trying to stay out of the district will feel comfortable returning, knowing that their child's needs are taken seriously.

Phil Brimble

Los Angeles

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I am a former teacher who retired from the LAUSD after 39 years of teaching elementary school. I also held counseling and administrative credentials. I spent 32 years teaching in the East Valley, where parents often did not know their rights, could not afford to have attorneys represent them or both.

In my experience, the LAUSD often failed to meet the needs of children with learning disabilities. Administrators were reluctant to qualify students for special services. The referral process was so extensive and complex that a whole school year could pass without the child being evaluated. The criteria for students to receive services kept changing, becoming more and more restrictive so fewer students qualified for fewer special education programs.

I would hope that the parents who can afford to sue will ultimately benefit all the students who are being shortchanged.

Marion Wilson

Sherman Oaks

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As a frequent consultant (to both parents and attorneys) in cases regarding school placement of children with various developmental disorders, I want to point out that school districts also fight parents who request a regular education placement--as opposed to special class placement--for their children. In one such instance, L.A. Unified insisted on a costly, self-contained special ed class instead of allowing the child (who had autism but was functioning at a high level) to remain in the regular classroom. Special education is often a one-way street; kids get in but rarely get moved out without the expense and stress of litigation.

Regardless of which services parents are requesting--costly private or home programs or regular education settings--the process has become inequitable. L.A. Unified spent $2.7 million on attorney fees alone last year--money that would be much better spent on providing more appropriate programs for kids who have problems that are just not met adequately by the district.

Jan Blacher PhD

School of Education

UC Riverside

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