Murder case puts spotlight on special needs programs

Integration into general classroom setting preferred

By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2010

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As John Odgren heads to prison today to serve a life sentence for murdering a fellow student, many are no doubt asking what went wrong.

Despite what the prosecution characterized as multiple red flags, Odgren had remained in Lincoln-Sudbury High School after being placed there by the Great Opportunities Program, an initiative of the Concord Area Special Education Collaborative, which aids school districts in the region in developing programs for students with special needs.

The goal with all such programs is to educate students in the least restrictive environment possible, and that means keeping students as highly integrated into a general classroom setting as circumstances allow.

It’s a legal, philosophical, and financial preference that state officials say works for the vast majority of special needs students.

“I’m not aware of any other large incidents, like the Odgren case, which have caused any real doubt to the value of inclusion. That was a tragedy, but it was also an aberration,’’ said David Riley, founder of the Inclusive Schools Network in Newton.

“In any student population, there’s the possibility for tragic incidents. Just look at our recent focus on bullying. Overall, inclusion has been a great success for both our special needs students and for the general population of our schools.’’

Two months after Odgren killed fellow student James F. Alenson in 2007, Lincoln-Sudbury officials announced that the Great Opportunities Program would be eliminated at the end of the school year because its three remaining participants were graduating and no other students had applied.

Officials from Lincoln-Sudbury and the Concord area collaborative did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Around the state, thousands of students remain in inclusion programs.

Of 13,863 students in Massachusetts identified as having emotional disabilities in 2008, 4,193 spent more than 80 percent of their education in a regular classroom.

Another 3,463 students spent less than 40 percent of their time in a regular classroom. Nearly 4,000 were enrolled in a separate special needs school.

The first preference is to keep children in a regular school setting as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple task, Riley said.

“When you’re talking about students with significant or severe emotional or behavioral disabilities, it can be very challenging,’’ Riley said. ’’And there are some students, despite best efforts, who require placement temporarily or permanently in noninclusive settings.’’

Only 3.6 percent of all Massachusetts special needs students attend private schools, according to Jim Major, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Private Schools.

“Our position is that we do support inclusion and that students with disabilities learn better when educated with nondisabled students,’’ Major said. “We become concerned when inclusion is seen as an end in itself, rather than a means for the student to progress and become an independent adult.’’

Part of the problem, Major said, is money.

Though school districts receive state and federal reimbursements for educating students with special needs, those levels of reimbursement are affected by the recession. The state recently cut $130 million out of one of the reimbursement funds, called the Circuit Breaker, for the state’s 2011 budget.

Major said funding is also kept intentionally low to prevent districts from identifying too many students as having special needs.

And of the many strategies that are available for districts to address the needs of their special education students, placement in private schools is the most expensive.

“There’s a presumption that inclusion is cheaper,’’ Major said. “If a district can offer less service to a student and cloak it in inclusion, they can often find a way to convince families and courts that less services are better.’’

If a family believes that a program designed to meet the needs of a special education student is faulty, it has the option to file with the Board of Special Education Appeals. However, Major said, the odds of winning an appeal are slim.

According to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, there were 609 hearing requests from parents who disputed the programs developed for their children in 2009.

Forty-eight of those requests led to completed hearings, and the parents prevailed in six cases.

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