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Editorial: Unflagging devotion

School districts must help children with special needs

Monday, September 25, 2000

It would be so much easier for school districts if the students all came in one flavor - vanilla needs, vanilla learning styles, vanilla capabilities. And how much simpler if parents smiled and accepted whatever the school system chose to provide as an appropriate education for their children.

But Deanna Lesneski of Washington County does not see her role as making life easy for the McGuffey School District but rather getting the best education possible for her children no matter how uncomfortable that makes her or the district. And thanks to the annoying persistence of Mrs. Lesneski, her son Max has a chance at a meaningful and valuable school experience.

Max, a 7-year-old second-grader at the Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School, has Down syndrome, is hearing impaired and suffers from asthma. In February the district and Mrs. Lesneski hammered out an Individual Education Program that provided for a teacher proficient in sign language to work directly with Max and a person to administer medication, as well as training for students and faculty on how to handle Max's inclusion into the regular school program.

When Mrs. Lesneski felt the district failed to implement the plan, she went to court. And when this school year started out with the district telling her that it would no longer administer Max's asthma medication (a charge the district denies), Mrs. Lesneski tied herself to the school flagpole to demand decent treatment for her child.

The protest took place, on and off, over a period of several weeks, during which time parents denounced the action at a school board meeting and the district tried to get an injunction to end it. Ultimately, Mrs. Lesneski determined the length of her vigil, calling it off earlier last week when the district promised to live up to its obligations and take the steps necessary to meet Max's educational and medical needs.

The Washington County Intermediate Unit, which gets federal funds for special education, agreed to hire the sign-language-proficient aide. And the district agreed to modify its policy and allow Max to carry his medication and allow a licensed practical nurse who does clerical work in the school to administer it. Those steps will make it possible for Max to breathe freely and to communicate in class, two fairly essential elements to any educational program.

It shouldn't be this hard. Mrs. Lesneski certainly made a spectacle of herself and drew as many detractors as supporters in her highly public display. But she says she spent three years battling with the district and working through the system without results. After 19 days lashed to a flagpole she got action.

Even run-of-the-mill kids make so many demands on the system and on teachers that it can be hard to keep up. Meeting the needs of children with serious disabilities is much more difficult, requiring extra planning and time, extra accommodation and extra money. Districts are right to proceed with caution.

If done without care and with insufficient funds, such efforts can be disastrous for everyone involved. Done well, it can be an enriching experience for the whole class. But inclusion is not about enhancing the sensitivities and adaptability of the students who will come in contact with the special-needs child, although it can do that. It is about giving everyone the thorough and efficient education he deserves.

The McGuffey School District apparently forgot that fact until an aggravatingly insistent mother reminded everyone that justice for all means something.

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