OPRF needs new leadership on special education issues


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While I don't have direct knowledge of the way OPRF's TEAM operates, my interactions with special education and other OPRF leaders have been marked by the patterns of obstructionism and discrimination that Scott Berman, Terry Burke, and Carolyn Effgen described in the April 20 VIEWPOINTS section.

My daughter's disabilities surfaced during the ninth grade when she was a student at OPRF. My requests for assistance in obtaining resources were met with either polite inaction or overt obstructionism. For example, one classroom teacher, rather than supporting my efforts, made the situation intolerably worse by harassing my daughter. The school leadership backed him up and refused the minimal accommodation of moving her out of the class for the second semester.

I decided to withdraw my daughter and enroll her in private school in the Chicago area when I found myself arguing that all students are entitled to education. At that time, I did not realize, nor did OPRF staff inform me, that transferring my daughter prior to developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) made her ineligible for numerous resources that are her right to have. Namely, OPRF was relieved of the responsibility of paying for my daughter's high school education now that she is in an out-of-state facility.

When I tried to negotiate this, staff in the special education office tried to impede my access to the director and implied that my requests for a conversation were illegitimate and motivated by financial self-interest, literally adding insult to injury. I now pay out of pocket over $7,000 per month for my daughter's care, and a significant portion of these fees is for academics. In essence, I am giving up my financial stability in order to secure my daughter's future.

There is a problem at OPRF. The district's culture creates an adversarial relationship between educators and the parents of students with disabilities. The school sweeps problems under the carpet rather than involving parents and the community in finding solutions. It is a closed system more intent on maintaining its institutional power than on fulfilling its educational mission in relation to students with disabilities. OPRF operates in service of cost savings rather than delivering to students with disabilities the highest quality education possible. What a contrast with the deferential treatment that high-achieving students get at OPRF!

I am angry that at OPRF academically elite students have top priority while students with disabilities are marginalized. Education is a basic human right, not a privilege reserved for cognitively, emotionally, and physically enabled children and so-called gifted students (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights).

On April 21, 2005, I read this statement at an OPRF board of trustees meeting, which, as usual, began with a tribute to high achieving students' recent accomplishments. I was shocked that while I was reading, Principal Susan Bridge repeatedly shook her head in disagreement.

Why would I lie about my experience at OPRF? The reality is that it was excruciatingly painful to discuss my daughter's disability in such a public forum, and I did so in order to improve the system by working to ensure that students with disabilities and their families are better served in the future. Other parents, some of whom were so distressed that they cried while making their statements, clearly share my good intentions.

Principal Susan Bridge's attitude exemplifies the problems at OPRF and demonstrates that they are deeply rooted, systemic, and exist at the highest levels.

It's past time for the board of education and the OPRF leadership to reform special education and eliminate practices that disenfranchise students with disabilities. The first step is for the board to take immediate and definitive action to identify a new leadership for the school, especially in the principal's office, Special Education and TEAM, who would make positive changes, including, but not limited to, establishing greater transparency and taking parents' concerns seriously.

? Colette Morrow, Ph.D., of Oak Park, is a senior Fulbright scholar; past president, National Women's Studies Association; and the National Women's Studies Association liaison to the United Nations.

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