Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Special Education Lawsuit Settlement in Pennsylvania Brings Hope to Parents
A proposed agreement to reform Pennsylvania's special education programs received overwhelming support Friday in federal court, but the state association of school boards has threatened to block the changes.
From The Morning Call
Educators, parents back plan to reform special education
Federal judge expected to rule on settlement in late summer.
By Elliot Grossman, Of The Morning Call, June 25, 2005
PHILADELPHIA | A proposed agreement to reform Pennsylvania's special education programs received overwhelming support Friday in federal court, but the state association of school boards has threatened to block the changes.
Two dozen educators and parents of students with disabilities urged a federal judge to approve the settlement of a class action lawsuit that would move more students with disabilities into regular classrooms.
The premise of the settlement is that, as much as possible, students with disabilities should be educated with other students. Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom in achieving that standard, a federal requirement.
''When my son graduates, he's not going to go to the Down syndrome movie theater,'' said Robyn Oplinger, whose son has Down syndrome. ''He'll go to the movie theater down the street.''
When all types of students are together, they all grow, said the Lower Macungie Township resident. ''We learn patience. We learn appropriate behavior.''
A parent, from the Haverford Township School District in Delaware County, called the settlement a ''giant step'' for fully integrating people with disabilities into society.
But a lawyer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said afterward that she has been authorized to sue the state Education Department, which helped negotiate the settlement, if the settlement goes into effect.
Though the association supports the concept behind the settlement, it believes that the negotiations circumvented the normal process required when state regulations are implemented. State law requires an extensive review of proposed regulations, including General Assembly committee hearings.
''We just want them to go through the process, first and foremost,'' said lawyer Allison Petersen, representing the association.
At the end of the 31/2-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno said he expects to rule in August or September on whether to approve the agreement.
It would require the state Education Department to provide more support to public schools to keep Pennsylvania's 255,000 students with disabilities in regular classrooms. The department would be required to develop a monitoring system to identify districts most in need of improvement in keeping such students in regular classrooms.
The case began in 1994, when the families of 12 students with disabilities and 11 disability advocacy organizations sued the department and other state officials for failing to place enough students with disabilities in regular classrooms. It became known as the Gaskin case, after plaintiff Lydia Gaskin, who's listed first on the suit.
On Friday, she sat in the front row of the courtroom next to her father, Joseph, a prime mover behind the case. As he testified, the lawyer asking questions paused, acknowledged the presence of Lydia Gaskin - a 21-year-old graduate of Carlisle High School in Cumberland County - and asked if she wanted to speak.
Gaskin, a petite woman with short brown hair and eyeglasses, walked to the podium and waved to her father on the witness stand.
''Thank you for helping me,'' she said to the judge.
''Thank you for coming today,'' he replied.
Joseph Gaskin, whose daughter spent 80 percent of her time in regular classes, said she is doing well socially. ''I know that this was the right outcome,'' he said, referring to the proposed settlement.
Moments later, an Education Department lawyer praised Joseph Gaskin for his role in the case, especially in the negotiations. ''He was a tenacious negotiator,'' said lawyer Lawrence White.
According to White, Gaskin reminded the lawyers and others that the case was not about the legal papers spread out on the negotiating table. It was about the students.
Those comments prompted applause from some of the 75 people in the courtroom, many of them parents and students.
It was the first of a dozen times applause erupted in the courtroom. Judges usually prohibit such outbursts, but Robreno never complained.
Francis Barnes, the outgoing education secretary, was the first witness, saying he fully supports the settlement and the state has enough resources to implement it.
But a Chester County mother of two students with disabilities said she's concerned that the settlement would move school districts toward ''full inclusion,'' meaning all students with disabilities would be in regular classrooms all the time.
That would not be appropriate for some students, such as those who have autism or are deaf, said Kathleen Carney of the Avon Grove School District. Carney said she's worried that classes solely for students with disabilities would be discontinued.
Robreno ''provisionally'' approved the settlement last month, but did not indicate at the hearing which way he's leaning on final approval.
''If it's not approved,'' he said, ''then we'll have to go back to the drawing board.''
He acknowledged the ''glacial'' pace of resolving the 11-year-old case. ''It's better to do it right than to do it fast,'' he said.