Some parents in the Alpine School District don't like the labels they think administrators are putting on their children.
The parents have made a life out of fighting labels, because their children are mentally or physically handicapped. But they think the youngsters should have the most normal education they can handle, and in some cases that means they ought to be in a normal classroom with the children in their own neighborhoods.Karen Hahne, whose son Reed has Down's syndrome, thinks the district sometimes resists searching for the best environment for each individual handicapped child. Reed is 5 years old and should enter kindergarten next year. He has a normal IQ, and though Hahne thinks her son may need a year of transitional instruction first, he eventually should attend school in a normal class.
State law says handicapped children should be educated in the least-restrictive environment in which they can function.
The Alpine District has established Dan Peterson School for the handicapped to serve students who can't function in a traditional classroom. That benefits many youngsters, but some parents believe administrators have a tendency to arbitrarily place most handicapped children there, whether it is the least restrictive environment for them or not.
"I do see progress (in the district), but I get discouraged, because it's like a TV sitcom - I'd like to see a solution in half an hour. There's a resistance in the district, and I don't know how long it will last," Hahne said. "We want a program that maximizes the child's potential and doesn't put limits on what he can do. It's been very easy to send kids to Peterson in the past. I just see the resistance in attitude."
The improvement Hahne and other parents have seen in the district is mostly due to Steven Baugh's recent appointment as superintendent.
"He promised some action after we told him about our problems," Hahne said. "And I've seen the results of that.
"We attempt to do what's best for the kids," Baugh said. "We may not always agree 100 percent with the parents. We will meet with parents and provide for them every opportunity that they're entitled to under the law. We're going to do what's legal and right for us to do.
But problems emerge when parents and administrators don't agree on what the district's obligation under the law amounts to. Ann Wakefield's son Michael has spina bifida and is paralyzed from the waist down. He spends a lot of time in a wheelchair, but he has normal intelligence, and his mom is committed to the idea that Michael belongs in a normal classroom.
"We were always planning to send Michael to the neighborhood school. There was never any doubt as far as we were concerned," she said. "Educationally, he's fine. He will function. Pro football is probably out, but aside from that, I really think there's nothing he can't do. I want him to feel normal from the start."
Wakefield thinks it is vital that Michael have an aide in the classroom to help him feel normal. He'll need some assistance getting around with the other children. District officials have been hesitant to help in that regard, though. The Wakefields have been fighting throughout the summer to get the help, and at this point the district has committed only to providing an aide for the first six weeks of the school year. After that, the situation will be re-evaluated.
Brian Page, who oversees Alpine's handicapped program, said the district has a legal obligation to provide an aide so Michael and children like him can function in the least-restrictive educational environment, but administrators want to make sure the arrangement works before they make a long-term commitment.