Little-Read Schoolhouse?

For years, many of the more than half a million mentally retarded children in the U.S. have had different school experiences than their peers, put in different classes, in different schools, sometimes in entirely different school districts – yet it was never considered discrimination.

That may have all changed with 16-year-old Patrick Jordan, and a legal deal his family and other families won from the state of Connecticut. And many say that it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Patrick is mentally retarded, a high-functioning Down Syndrome sufferer who has fought in the courts for 10 years not to be relegated to special-education classes but to be able to take the same classes as average kids.

"I never could’ve felt good about him being in a segregated classroom," Patrick’s father, Bill Jordan, said. "Sometimes it’s the easier way out, but I never felt that that was appropriate."

Before the agreement, mentally retarded children in Connecticut’s 60 school districts were generally excluded from academic classes such as algebra and Spanish, but were often mainstreamed into physical education, art and music classes and in the library and cafeteria.

The kind of education each mentally retarded kid received could differ as well, depending on how each school district interpreted a child's abilities as well as how they interpreted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that Congress passed in 1975 to give disabled children equal access to public education.

Patrick, who will enter the 10th grade in the autumn, was exceptional for a Connecticut mentally retarded student. For years now, he has been in a regular class, becoming a Boy Scout and earning a spot on the high school swim team at his school in West Hartford, Conn.

But his parents continued to press a fight on behalf of other mentally retarded children in Connecticut so that they might get the same opportunity Patrick did under a uniform state policy.

The Jordans and other parents argued in a class-action lawsuit that by barring most mentally retarded kids from regular classes, the state board of education was violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Even the U.S. Department of Education has conceded that it hasn’t done a stand-up job making sure each state’s school districts followed IDEA.

The parents’ fight ended last month, when the state of Connecticut agreed to a groundbreaking settlement in which it promised to integrate more special-education students into academic classes and activities with children who don’t have mental disabilities. By agreeing to settle with the Jordans and the other parents, the state committed itself to spending millions to re-train teachers to accomodate the disabled students.

"(This agreement) incorporates the basic principles that our law mandates … which is that mentally retarded students should be schooled with the nondisabled," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. "Hopefully this settlement will save the time and expense that would have been involved with further litigation."

And the settlement agreement, which is expected to be approved by U.S. Magistrate Donna F. Martinez, could set a precedent for how other states handle the education of their mentally retarded children.

But many educators and legal experts are worried that adding the kids to the mainstream student body will result in unwieldy classes, fewer resources and classes being disrupted by children who have serious behavioral and health problems.

"Regular classroom teachers are approaching this with trepidation," the Hartford Federation of Teachers’ Edwin Vargas said. "They want to be sure that they aren’t being set up for failure."

Walter Olson, a Manhattan Institute expert on disabilities law, said that instead of helping disabled children move forward, the settlement could set all the other children back.

"What it means for parents is more likelihood that something is going to be going on in your kids’ classroom other than a good education," he said. "More disruption, more falling behind in the material, more distraction for the teacher."

That’s not the way Bill Jordan looks at it. By being included in a regular class, as just another part of a group with other kids, children like Patrick can become more than just the kids in special ed, he said.

"We just felt he’d become more socially acceptable if he (were) around typical kids as opposed to being in a concentrated environment where everybody has some kind of disability," Bill Jordan said.