Special Ed a Magnet for Legal Battles as the Number of Students and Cost of Special Education Rises, So Do the Tensions

By Burnett, Sara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Special Ed a Magnet for Legal Battles as the Number of Students and Cost of Special Education Rises, So Do the Tensions


Burnett, Sara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Sara Burnett Daily Herald Staff Writer

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and parents Mick and Diane Ross have spent a combined $1.3 million in a legal battle over where the Ross' daughter, Lindsey, should go to school.

That's enough money to pay the average annual salary for 16 District 211 teachers, cover more than one-tenth of the recent $10.1 million addition to Palatine High School or, as Diane Ross sarcastically notes, hire 20 bodyguards to allay district concerns that Lindsey is too dangerous for Conant High School.

But it's not enough to surprise several special education experts.

"I'd characterize it as exceptional, but not unheard of," said Andrew Rotherham, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.

The District 211 v. Ross case is a metaphor of sorts for the state of special education in Illinois and across the country: More and more students identified as needing special help; more tension between parents and schools about how to provide it; higher costs yet less money to do it with; and more complicated, expansive laws governing special education.

In 1976, special education students made up about 8 percent of the total student population nationwide. By 2002, it was closer to 12 percent.

And in Illinois in 2003, roughly 14.7 percent - more than 310,000 students - received special education services. Those services vary from occasional help with reading to more intense, one-on-one or two-on-one aides.

Just which side - parents or school districts - has the upper hand in special education cases, and how much is being spent on legal fees, is debatable. Because every case is so different, costs vary widely, and no one office or agency keeps track of the dollar amounts.

The only certainty, according to Northeastern Illinois University professor David Yasutake, is that the cases can quickly turn ugly - and expensive.

A Tennessee school district, for example, has spent more than $2.3 million on a case it is now appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's kind of the equivalent of a nasty divorce proceeding," said Yasutake, chairman of Northeastern's graduate program for special education teachers. "You're dealing with all sorts of things."

Record-setting case

In the Ross case, Mick and Diane wanted their daughter, who has a relatively rare disability known as Rett Syndrome, to spend at least part of her day in "regular" classroom at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates.

Lindsey was mainstreamed in elementary and middle school in Schaumburg Elementary District 54, and though court records document hundreds of incidents in which she bit or hit herself or others, the Rosses say the district worked with them and Lindsey to respond to behavior issues and ensure she learned and made friends.

The Rosses say they met with resistance, however, when it came time for Lindsey to enter District 211. They argue staff were not properly trained to deal with Lindsey or her disability and that as a result, the now 18-year-old began "acting out" more than usual.

District officials note, however, that in a 2002 evaluation, doctors from the University of Chicago estimated Lindsey's cognitive skills on some tests as the equivalent of a 7-year-old.

Records also show that during the 2001-02 school year, Lindsey hit or bit herself 1,221 times, hit or slapped others 561 times, and broke two staff members' noses.

The Rosses note, however, that those numbers include "contacts," and not always injuries, and that many of the behaviors -"swatting" with the hands, for example - are characteristic for Rett Syndrome. They also say some reports are dated on days when Lindsey wasn't in school.

At the end of Lindsey's freshman year, district officials told the Rosses they were recommending she not return to Conant. …

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