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February 3, 2003

St. Lucie schools try to give deaf choices

From: Palm Beach Post, FL - 03 Feb 2003

By Nirvi Shah, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 3, 2003

When the St. Lucie County School District forced a deaf child to attend a school with other deaf children last school year, instead of the magnet school where he earned a spot through a waiting list, it was discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The department recently told the school district it discriminated against the child because it didn't provide a sign language interpreter at the magnet school and instead made him attend a school where other deaf children attend so the boy could share an interpreter.

"The student was treated differently from non-disabled students and other disabled students... who have a choice in attending a magnet school," investigator Cynthia Stewart wrote in recently released records.

Last year all of the district's deaf students who needed sign language interpreters had only one choice for each level of school: Rivers Edge Elementary, Southern Oaks Middle and Fort Pierce Westwood High. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students who didn't need interpreters were scattered at other schools.

Other public school students in St. Lucie may choose from among several schools in their part of the county. Some other students are restricted to particular schools, including the severely emotionally disturbed, trainable mentally handicapped and profoundly mentally handicapped. Except for students with profound mental handicaps, such as autism, all students have more choices than students who are deaf.

The mother of a kindergartner went through St. Lucie County's school choice process of signing up for a magnet school and got a spot for her son at Fairlawn Elementary. However, the district said he wasn't allowed to attend Fairlawn, and would have to attend Rivers Edge instead.

School officials said their intention wasn't discrimination, but efficiency. They simply didn't have enough sign language interpreters to go around last year. Now they do.

"You can be responsible to do it, but you can't do it," said Barbara Slaga, who oversees exceptional student education. "There are situations where we simply can't find qualified staff."

Also, teachers at the select schools may have auditory training and special equipment. Many of the students have needs beyond simply a sign language interpreter, she said.

At the beginning of the school year, the boy was sent to the magnet school he could have entered as a kindergartner and the school board adopted an explicit policy for assigning deaf students.

"No student shall be reassigned from or otherwise denied access to a magnet school because the student requires the services of an interpreter for the hearing impaired," the policy states.

Despite the new policy, which school board attorney Dan Harrell argues simply "memorializes existing practices," the school district will still have to break its own new rule sometimes, Slaga said.

If the district faces a shortage again, most likely the child at Fairlawn will get to stay there until he graduates from that school, but then might be forced to attend one of the cluster schools. Even putting a child out there is a risk, Slaga said, because the interpreter might get sick or be unavailable for other reasons. Then what?

"You can't send people all over the place," Slaga said, comparing a national shortage of sign language interpreters to the growing lack of nurses. The district has only a few registered nurses for its 34 schools. "If you can't find anybody, I don't know how you do that."

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