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Making inclusion work

If Christian Ragusa were merely incorrigible, he would have been kicked out of school long ago. He punches teachers, he kicks students, he breaks things. This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated in a classroom. The teacher can't teach, his classmates can't concentrate and he can't learn.

So Hillsborough County school officials went to federal court and last week succeeded in kicking Christian out of Chamberlain High School. It was an unprecedented step made necessary by one simple fact: Christian is autistic. The law says he cannot be expelled because of a disability.

A few years ago, a child like Christian would have been placed in a special class at a school designed for kids with special needs. But under pressure from parents, and under prodding by the federal government, kids like Christian are moving into the mainstream.

Critics complain that this movement is placing unnecessary burdens on educators and point to kids like Christian Ragusa as examples. But such extremes are exceptions, not the rule. This is a movement that ought to be supported, not ridiculed. It is succeeding, despite highly publicized problems. Educators and parents have to work together to make this succeed.

This is not the first time this issue has come up in the Tampa Bay area. Three years ago, the parents of a handicapped child sued the Pinellas School Board in federal court to allow their child to attend a regular school instead of a special education school. The parents won, and the School Board agreed to pay the parents' legal fees.

That kind of outcome has made school officials throughout the country understandably cautious in dealing with handicapped children. They are required to do individualized assessments and consult closely with parents.

But Hillsborough officials were forced to move too quickly two years ago when the U.S. Office of Civil Rights concluded that too many children were being barred from regular classrooms. The federal review was prompted by complaints from parents.

Instead of gradually moving these children into regular schools over a scheduled five-year period, school officials had to shift 300 students in a single semester. Christian Ragusa was one of them.

Autistic children have trouble with change. Remember the movie Rain Man? Dustin Hoffman played an autistic adult who couldn't handle change. Even the seemingly innocuous can seem drastic to someone with autism. Missing Judge Wapner seems funny unless you're autistic.

Angela Ragusa, Christian's mother, complains that Hillsborough school officials were unprepared for her son to attend a regular school. The evidence suggests she is right. But when officials tried to correct their mistake and move him back to a special school, she balked. More change won't help him, she said.

But now a federal judge has decided that Christian must return to LaVoy Exceptional Center.

When Christian's parents canceled a meeting scheduled to work out a compromise, the School Board went to court, a hardball tactic that is hardly conducive to creating the cooperation necessary in this kind of relationship. School officials think Christian's parents have been uncooperative. His parents think school officials are insensitive.

This is not an issue with easy, black-and-white answers. Handicapped children deserve the best education they can get. Sometimes that means spending all day in a regular classroom, or part of the day, or none at all. It all depends on the child's needs. If handled properly, handicapped children will benefit from being in a regular classroom. And the non-handicapped students will learn a few things, too.

But these cases have to be decided on an individual basis. The federal government must give school officials time to make the transition or there will be more cases like Christian's. Cases like his not only hurt the children involved, they undermine public support for this worthwhile movement.

Still, school officials must recognize inclusion as a reality and cooperate with parents to find the best environment for the kids. Teachers need more training to handle these new responsibilities. School administrators need to develop ways to handle disputes. And parents must cooperate.

It won't be easy. But it's important to remember what the real goal is _ to give all of our children the best education we can.

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