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October 25, 2002

Special education plan praised

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger, MS
Oct. 25, 2002

• After years of tension, parents, officials agree on approach

By Cathy Hayden

Parents of disabled children on Thursday lauded a new state teaching plan.

The plan, to be sent to the U.S. Department of Education, is the state's guideline for local schools on educating special education students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act. It comes after years of tension between advocates for special education students and state educators.

Her hands and voice shaking with emotion, Mandy Rogers of Madison, parent of two hearing-impaired sons, praised the plan to state Board of Education members meeting in Jackson.

Rogers, who has been an outspoken critic of the state's special education office, called the new plan "child focused — something we haven't seen before."

"The state plan changes are going to give kids with disabilities access to the general curriculum," said Jim Comstock-Galagan of Bay St. Louis, an attorney for a group of parents and disabilities advocates involved in a 1970s Mississippi lawsuit known as Mattie T.

"Kids with disabilities have dreams and ambitions like everybody else. They should have the opportunity to pursue those dreams and ambitions," he said.

The state Department of Education's special education office, along with the State Advisory Committee on Special Education, has been working on the plan for months.

It details how disabled students will be identified, how programs to help them will be formed and how those students will be integrated into regular classroom settings, among other things.

One change in the plan after additional input is the state and local school districts will focus more on whether disabled students are learning more and making progress instead of whether schools are following a process correctly, said Comstock-Galagan.

State board members were asked to approve the plan several weeks ago but waited for more input from parents and local school district superintendents.

"This is the first time I can remember since I've been on this board that both sides (parents and educators) were communicating," said board member Charlie Deaton of Greenwood, who has been on the board since 1987.

Said board member A.M. Zeidman of Brandon: "This is the first time in history. Do y'all want to go to Iraq?" prompting laughter from the audience at his suggestion that the parties could succeed in getting Saddam Hussein to allow United Nations weapons inspectors into Iraq.

Pam Dollar, who chairs the advisory committee and has an 11-year-old autistic son, also praised the plan.

"After reviewing the proposed policies and procedures, the consensus of the panel is that these changes will have a positive impact on special education services in our state," she said. "We feel the changes are reasonable and fair to school districts."

Said Melody Bounds, director of special education in the state Department of Education: "The process worked exactly like it was supposed to work."

© Jackson Clarion Ledger