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Handicapped policy makes way to court

Published Oct. 8, 2005

The veteran special education teacher could handle the loud noises the autistic teen made in her classroom. She could handle the distractions.

What she couldn't handle was the hitting.

Teacher Jenna Hodgens was swatted more than once by Christian Ragusa, an autistic 16-year-old in her class at Chamberlain High School. Other teachers were kicked or punched or had their hair pulled.

"I've been hit and I've been hurt, and it's something I can't ignore," Hodgens said.

After a few months of the classroom disruptions, Hillsborough school officials decided they couldn't ignore Christian's behavior. They were unable to agree on a solution with Christian's family. Then in a move that shocked the Ragusa family, the district took the unusual step of going to court to have the teen removed from Chamberlain and sent back to a special education center.

Today, Christian's case will be the subject of a hearing in federal court. Attorneys for the Ragusas and the school district will argue the ins and outs of the laws and policies regarding the rights of handicapped students rights to an education.

But the issue comes down to very fundamental questions. Was Christian's behavior unpredictable and dangerous or the very predictable acting up of a handicapped teen not getting what he needs from school? Has the school district done all it can to make it possible for students like Christian to make the move to a regular school?

And what is the best place for a child like Christian?

Questions such as these are being asked all around the nation, as educators move toward "inclusion" _ the movement of handicapped children from special education centers to the county's other schools and classrooms. Experts, educators, and even the School Board lawyer, see more court battles as inclusion takes hold in the schools.

A swinging pendulum

The movement has been controversial from the start.

Advocates of inclusion want to get away from the dark ages of 25 to 30 years ago when handicapped children were institutionalized, and to do what's necessary to include those children in school life and in society. They point to a law that says handicapped children have a right to an education in the least restrictive environment. They liken the movement to desegregation efforts _ only now it's handicapped children fighting for the right to sit in the classroom.

Detractors say that once you cut through the hype, it's an ideologically motivated effort that, in some cases, benefits no one. They say that some handicapped children will be more isolated in a mainstream classroom. One of the nation's largest teachers unions last year called for a moratorium on inclusion efforts.

"Some extreme inclusion advocates want to push the pendulum too far," said James Kauffman, professor of education at the University of Virginia and a former special education teacher. "The consequence of that is damage to kids, damage to programs and a severe backlash."

Experts on both sides tend to agree that the success of inclusion efforts depends on preparation and training. If schools are not ready for students with behavioral, mental, and physical handicaps _ some students who might scream or strike out unexpectedly _ the inclusion efforts will not go smoothly.

"When it doesn't work, there are reasons for it," said Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, an associate professor at California State University and co-director of a national research institute examining inclusion issues. "With the proper resources and support, there's no reason that it shouldn't work."

Janet Jacoby, director of operations for the Family Network on Disabilities of Florida, based in Tampa, questions whether Hillsborough schools have devoted the necessary resources.

"The district had several years to get ready, and then with the OCR (Office of Civil Rights) deadline there was a lot of scrambling to do something," Jacoby said. "In a lot of areas they're trying to do it without adequate resources. There's more support in some schools than others.

"And the parents are impatient because to wait a year or two years, that's two years of their child's life."

How did we get here?

Two years ago, the Hillsborough school district faced one heck of a deadline.

For years the district planned to move some handicapped children out of special education centers and into mainstream schools. But a mandate from the federal Office of Civil Rights forced that effort into high gear.

District officials worked to schedule conferences with parents, to get the necessary education plans done and to arrange the moves.

By the time the 1992-93 school year started, the district's big move toward inclusion was under way. About 300 handicapped children movedfrom special centers full of handicapped children into the county's mainstream schools.

From all indications, it appears most moves have been successful. Teachers and parents describe the social benefits to handicapped and non-handicapped children. Some describe dramatic academic gains by handicapped children who are modeling the behavior of the non-handicapped children.

"The only complaint I'm hearing is that there isn't enough inclusion," said Ann Hart, president of the Autism Society in Hillsborough County and the mother of an autistic child. "In most cases, it seems to be "so far, so good.' "

But it hasn't all been smooth and uneventful.

"We're hearing concerns from some teachers who say they haven't been trained," said Superintendent Walter Sickles. "And we've heard concerns from parents who have children who are affected when a special education child is having difficulty in their class."

Myrna Robinson, the general director of special instructional services for Hillsborough schools, estimated that out of 370 students moved through inclusion, eight have been moved back to special centers because things did not work out.

"I think we handled it as well as could be expected, given the pressure we were under," Sickles said. "Remember, we were undoing some things we'd been doing for 20 years."

Clearly, the case of Christian Ragusa is the exception to the rule _ a case in which school officials and parents couldn't agree on a solution. But it's not unique around the nation, where court cases have been sprouting up for several years.

Perhaps the most influential case was one involving Rafael Oberti, a kindergartener in New Jersey with Down's syndrome who regularly hit and spat upon classmates. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the 8-year-old would not have had such behavior problems if the school district provided adequate classroom support.

That underscores one of the key questions in Christian's case: Would the teen's transfer have been more successful if all the necessary resources had been in place, and if there had been less change and upheaval in Christian's schooling?

A problem with change

Angela Ragusa is not exactly a poster mom for the inclusion movement. In fact, she would have been happy to have her autistic son remain at the LaVoy Exceptional Center.

Mrs. Ragusa was the treasurer of the school's parent-teacher organization. She was happy with the teachers and the program at the school, and figured her son would be there until he graduated. And with a son who does not take well to change, she had no interest in moving him.

But at the start of the 1993-94 school year, it became clear the Ragusas would have to contend with change one way or the other. With the district's move toward inclusion, LaVoy was changing. Teachers and students who Christian knew for years were moving out, headed for the county's other schools.

The Ragusas agreed to move Christian to Chamberlain High. He wouldn't be completely mainstreamed _ that is, placed in a classroom with non-handicapped children. He was placed in a "self-contained" classroom for autistic students _ in Jenna Hodgens' class.

"I just wanted him wherever he was going to do his best," Mrs. Ragusa said. "I just didn't want him moved around constantly."

Since Christian has been at Chamberlain, he has experienced the following changes: His class started in a portable classroom, and then was moved to a different classroom. He had a one-to-one teacher's aide working with him, but the aide recently transferred. Now, with the district's lawsuit, Christian has been temporarily barred from Chamberlain.

Mrs. Ragusa does not deny that her son has been acting up at school. But she says that in other settings he is easily controlled.

"This is a boy who goes to church and sits quietly for an hour _ no problem," Mrs. Ragusa said. "If you read this lawsuit you would think "My God, this kid's a monster.'


In the court complaint, the school district detailed Christian's behavior problems, starting with Aug. 26 when he reportedly hit a student, kicked the teacher's aide, hit his teacher, and broke a VCR remote.

The district and the Ragusas scheduled an "individual education plan" meeting to discuss plans for Christian. The Ragusas canceled the meeting, and the next day the district filed a complaint in court _ a move the Ragusas' lawyers characterize as "hardball."

"One day the family is trying to schedule a meeting, and the next day it's in litigation," said Laura Whiteside, one of the Ragusas' attorneys. "That's not working with the family; that's an attempt to get (Christian) out of the school."

Last week, the federal judge issued an order allowing the school district to transfer Christian from Chamberlain to LaVoy on a temporary basis. Simple enough, except that Mrs. Ragusa doesn't want her son going back to LaVoy. She has nothing against the school, but she points out that the autism teacher is on leave and a substitute is handling the class for now. To Mrs. Ragusa, that sounds like more change for her son.

She has been keeping Christian home until everything is resolved.

U.S. District Judge Ralph W. Nimmons would like to see a solution, too. He has urged the two sides to work at it, and earlier this week, the individual education plan meeting finally came together. The meeting lasted from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., and there was no agreement.

Ann Hart, the president of the local Autism Society chapter, can relate to Angela Ragusa's situation. She is an inclusion advocate, though she could hardly be called an extremist.

She, too, has a son who is autistic. He is in a regular elementary school, in a self-contained classroom. She believes that's just right for him _ for now.

"The goal is to become more mainstreamed over time," Mrs. Hart said. "For all kids, part of the school process is to learn how to get along in the world. It's important for our kids to learn how to get along with other kids.

"I think that's what Angela (Ragusa) wants. She just wants Christian to be stable, happy and learning. The same thing any parent would want."