A Live Controversy


USA Today Articles

January 14, 1998

Schools back decision on disabled students

By Tamara Henry

School officials see a victory in a Supreme Court decision to allow limits on the controversial practice of placing severely disabled students in regular classrooms. The Supreme Court refused to hear Monday the case of Joseph and Roxana Hartmann who wanted their autistic son enrolled full time in a regular classroom at a Loudoun County (Va.) public school.

The high court let stand a lower court ruling to keep the child in a class for autistic students, with participation in regular art, music and physical education classes.

The parents felt their son, Mark, was "benefiting socially and academically by his inclusion in regular classes. But school officials complained that the boy's behavior, including hitting, pinching and removing his clothes, was disruptive.

Kathleen Mehfoud, a lawyer representing the school system, said this case and similar cases nationwide must consider factors such as the child's needs, the problems caused by creating special programs in regular classes, the cost of additional staffing and disruptions to other students.

The Hartmanns have already moved their son to a Blacksburg, Va., public school, 230 miles away where he was placed full time in a regular classroom. He now is a sixth-grader. Mark and his mother live in Blacksburg and commute back to Loudoun County on weekends.

Getting the Supreme Court to rule was a long shot, Joseph Hartmann said. But he added, "There's a big winner here. The big winner is my son because he is in a very appropriate educational placement in a public school system down in Blacksburg. And, he's doing very well."

March 11, 1998

Boy with autism gets hard lesson in court

By Tamara Henry

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Twelve-year-old Mark Hartmann is not your typical preteen, but he is clearly in the throes of adolescence, enjoying music and preferring McDonald's burgers and fries to Mom's vegetable snacks.

It's uncertain if Mark "likes" school, but he moves from class to class with his sixth-grade peers at Blacksburg Middle School with little complaint. But then, Mark does not talk.

Mark has autism, a neurological disorder that affects communication and behavior.

He has been the subject of battles in two Virginia school systems over the responsibilities of schools to edµcate all children, whether physically or mentally impaired. But in a January ruling that drew little notice, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case Mark's parents brought against Loudoun County, Va., schools. That indirectly allowed schools to place limits on the emotionally charged practice of placing students with severe disabilities in regular classrooms virtually all day - a practice known as inclusion.

The decision exhausts the legal remedies for Mark's parents, Joseph and Roxana Hartmann, who had moved Mark 230 miles southwest to Blacksburg in Montgomery County because of its program of inclusion.

Joseph Hartmann and Mark's 13-year-old sister, Laura, remain in northern Virginia in the family home. "We take it a year at a time," Roxana Hartmann says of the living arrangement, "You have to do what you have to do. That's life."

Struggle goes on

But the court's decision hasn't ended the daily struggle of parents and educators to find the right educational setting for individual students with disabilities. And Mark's doing well - by most accounts - in a full inclusion setting raises anew questions about why the practice can work in some schools and, perhaps, not as well in others.

Advocates for inclusion see it as a basic civil right. But opponents complain that, in the name of equality, teachers without the proper training are being asked to teach these kids, at the cost of disruption to others.

"The controversy will continue as to whose needs should prevail in deciding whether regular education and special education students should be educated together," says lawyer Kathleen S. Mehfoud, who represented Loudoun County.

Mark, who first was diagnosed as autistic at age 3, went to kindergarten and first grade in regular classrooms in a suburban Chicago school, but in the 1993-94 school year the Hartmanns moved to Ashburn, Va. Although Loudoun County hired a full-time aide and trained both the aide and Mark's second-grade teacher to work with him, school officials complained the boy was disruptive - hitting, pinching and sometimes undressing.

The Hartmanns argues that the aide and teacher were not properly trained.

Loudoun County officials decided Mark would best learn in a class with autistic children at a nearby school. The district sued the Hartmanns to force the change, but rather than allow the move, Mark and his mother moved in early 1995 to Montgomery County, which has drawn families of students with disabilities from other parts of Virginia.

Mehfoud questions Montgomery County's all-or-nothing approach. She says Blacksburg Middle School's program goes to the opposite extreme and says inclusion is appropriate and the only option for every disabled child. "I know that legally with special education you cannot say one type of program will serve all disabilities." She adds that the law allows a match of the educational services with the individual needs of a child."

The American Association of School Administrators, which generally favors inclusion, sides with Loudoun County in this instance. The AASNs Bruce Hunter says the school superintendent put together what he felt was a very good (education) package for the student, and the parents disagreed.

Parents divided

But parents and educators Me divided over inclusion as well. Steve Holladay, a professor at Blacksburg's Virginia Tech University, said in a letter to a local newspaper he was "sincerely sympathetic" to Mrs. Hartmann. "However, she and others who move here to take advantage of our inclusion policy seem to have little concern about the effect their children may have on other children in the classrooms."

Other parents wrote letters to the editor in defense of the "schools" policies. Susie Vassgal of Blacksburg says children with disabilities are more likely to learn appropriate behaviors if they are "included" in regular classes, while other children learn about tolerance and compassion.

Roxana Hartmann is passionate about exposing her son to a regular educational environment. "If we don't try, we never know what they are capable of doing. As a mother that's very important to me."

Adds Blacksburg Middle's principal, Gary McCoy: "I firmly believe it's right" to educate all students together. "I think it's right what we are doing for Mark and all the other Marks out there."

A day with Mark

At school, Mark sports a crew cut, a burgundy-and­ gold Washington Redskins jacket and adidas sneakers. He communicates with sheets of pictures, a hand­held keyboard that spews ticker-tape messages and a talking laptop computer.

A day watching Mark go through the paces at the 900-student school shows that inclusion means that while he's full time in classrooms with the regular students, he enjoys the assistance of special aides and equipment about one-fourth of his time.

In computer class, Mark works alone with aide Heather Massimini. Using strips of paper with word fragments on them, Mark types the words in as Massimini reads" them, building on each phrase until he's typing longer, complicated sentences.

In math, Mark uses a counting board and his ticker­tape machine to answer problems on flash cards.

In art, teacher Lee Worley is pleased with Mark's progress, although he makes allowances for Mark's very limited motor skills.

"Mark can pretty much hang with us in what we do," Worley says. "I've seen the attitudes of other students change. They treat Mark like everyone else."

The kids don't shy away from him, with some offering cheerful greetings or joining him at the lunchroom table. When Mark occasionally screeches with excitement or in frustration, classmates giggle, roll their eyes in embarrassment or just ignore the brief interruption.

For people with autism, routine is favored, and various textures fascinate. So Mark frequently touches whatever is nearby - the computer screen, clay pellets in art or the rough plaster­covered pole in the cafeteria near his favorite eating spot.

Teacher involvement

Teacher involvement is key as well. The middle school teachers work in teams that can decide daily whether to give Mark or any of the 130 other students with disabilities one-on-one instruction. Also, the team meets weekly with Roxana Hartmann to discuss Mark's work and progress.

"We meet the needs of every child who has a specific disability. You can't be separate and equal," says Terry Robinson, a speech and language instructor. McCoy thinks inclusion works here because people make it work. "It's their willingness to go the extra mile ... to put up with certain things that they may not normally do."

But Mehfoud says the Blacksburg program may be working for Mark Hartmann because he is older now. "Certainly there are a large number of students with disabilities who are successfully included in regular classes every day. A lot depends on the age of the child, the severity of their behaviors and the severity of their disability."

To Anne L. Bryant of. the National School Boards Association, the fact that inclusion can work in some instances and not in others is confirmation that schools should have options for how to educate those with special needs."

"Every culture is different," Bryant says. "Young people who don't have special needs change from one week to the next and are effective in some climates with some teachers and are less effective with others. So I think that's why it is so important to allow teachers and administrators to make these decisions about who should attend regular classes rather than a rule that is enforced across, all schools and all different cultures and all towns the same. It can't work."