Parents Push for Disabled Girl's Education School Officials Concerned about Students' Safety

Article excerpt

Diane Light of Chesterfield likens herself to a punching bag: resilient.

"The more you bop me, the more I come back with greater strength. And I won't go away until I win," said Light, a mother who says she is willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the rights of her disabled daughter.

Lauren Light, 14, got suspended from Parkway Central Middle School last spring after she struck another student in the head with her hand three times. (Court records show that in the two years prior to her suspension, Lauren committed 11 to 19 aggressive acts a week, including 30 that needed the attention of the school nurse.)

After the incident last spring, administrators determined that she was dangerous to herself and others.

Her parents immediately took her case to court and began teaching their daughter at home.

Lauren's mother, a preschool teacher, and father, Marty Light, a jeweler, are fighting in federal court to get Lauren back into a regular school. "She is discriminated against because of her disability," said Diane Light. "She's work. But I'm not asking them to love her. I am asking them to educate her."

Lauren's disability, diagnosed at seven months, stems from a seizure disorder, language impairment and mild mental retardation.

Now At Neuwoehner

While attorneys argue the case, Lauren attends Neuwoehner School in Town and Country; it's run by the Special School District of St. Louis County for students with severe disabilities.

Special School District educates 22,013 disabled students from ages 3 to 21. Lauren is one of about 1,250 served in the district's seven special education buildings for students with disabilities. The rest of the district's students receive services in one of 23 local school districts in St. Louis County, as Lauren did at Parkway Central Middle School before she was suspended.

Before that, she had been educated at several schools in Parkway and Special District, including buildings that serve only disabled students.

Lauren's case stands out because parents' protests and demands rarely wind up in court. James C. Thomeczek, attorney for the Special School District, says that most parents and educators reach a settlement on services and placement for the disabled child.

The case also points up the controversy and confusion of parents, educators and lawmakers as they struggle to determine when and how disabled children should be included in or excluded from regular classrooms.

The Lights are challenging a decision made last month in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision upheld a lower court ruling favoring Lauren's removal from Parkway Central because she was dangerous to other students, staff and herself.

"The Light case illustrates everyone wins," says John Heskett, assistant commissioner for special education for the Missouri Department of Education. "Special education services for Lauren Light continue, and the safety and welfare of the staff and students stay protected," he said. "What the court had to do was balance the interests of Lauren Light - and her right to a free, appropriate public education - with the interests and rights of other children going to school and the school district's duty to provide a safe, nurturing environment for all students."

Lauren's parents argue long and loud that their daughter should be given the professional support to attend Parkway schools under federal law that allows her to be educated in the least restrictive environment. …