I read with interest the responses in your newspaper to my letter concerning private school outplacements for students with disabilities at District 200. I have since learned, through a Freedom of Information Act request, that I was right about this: Oak Park and River Forest High School special ed really is sending about a fifth of its students with disabilities to private schools, at a cost to taxpayers of about $3 million a year.

According to information I received recently from the Illinois State Board of Education, 97 of OPRF’s 518 special ed students-or 19 percent-were enrolled in private schools for the 2005-2006 school year. This is 9-10 times the state average, according to information I previously received from ISBE. The average in Illinois for private school special ed outplacements by public school districts is 2 percent, according to ISBE. What’s more, OPRF was reimbursed less than $100,000 by the state for these private outplacements, according to the FOIA information I received. This means that approximately $2.9 million of this burden was shouldered by Oak Park and River Forest taxpayers. It’s not clear whether the $3 million includes the more than half a million dollars a year that OPRF spends on special ed transportation costs, so the cost for these outplacements could be even higher.

Just what is going on here behind the scenes? Previously, I speculated that poor special ed services at Dist. 200 were driving parents to seek outplacements in much greater numbers than at other school districts. I still strongly believe this is the case. It is true that some students with severe disabilities will always need and thrive in private placements. As a taxpayer, I am happy to support this kind of expenditure where the district, with reasonable effort, truly cannot meet the child’s needs and the family wants it. But the numbers here are clearly excessive.

In addition to poor services, I now believe there may be a second, more disturbing explanation for this inexplicably big budget item-i.e., misuse of “forced” outplacements for:

1) students with disabilities who have minor discipline problems and

2) students with disabilities who special ed personnel do not wish to serve.

These are situations where the parent does not want their child sent away but the school insists, in what appears to have become an accepted practice at OPRF. Through conversations with parents, I have learned that OPRF students with disabilities make up a substantial portion of the enrollments at some area “alternative” schools. These are private schools that take in students with emotional and behavioral problems at $35,000 or more in annual tuition. These places operate in a “lockdown” atmosphere, with few resources to address the needs of a student with disabilities. Many are for-profit institutions, meaning they profit by retaining students at these high tuition rates. Some do not even have a sufficient number of teachers with special education training, and so insist on rewriting and cutting back the special education plans of students with disabilities who are enrolled there.

I also have learned of students with more severe disabilities who were forced by OPRF special ed to enroll in private schools for the disabled over their families’ objections, even though these same students attended districts 97 or 90 through eighth grade. Districts 97 and 90 apparently were able and willing to handle these children’s needs, while Dist. 200 could not-or would not.

According to legal guidance published by the Illinois State Board of Education on its website, there are only limited circumstances in which students with disabilities in Illinois can legally be forced to attend private alternative schools at public expense rather than their home district. One is where the school files a “due process” action, a quasi-legal hearing in which it hires its outside attorney (at local taxpayer expense) to seek to change the child’s placement over the parents’ objections.

Another is where the student violates the school discipline code, but only in limited circumstances. Such a child (with a discipline violation) may be suspended and sent to an alternative (private) school for no more than 10 days. If the suspension is going to last any longer, the school, by law, must first hold a meeting that includes the parent and special education team to determine if the violation was a “manifestation” of the child’s disability. If so, the child must be returned to the school district with a written plan for addressing the behavior.

Longer involuntary outplacements are prohibited without a due process hearing, according to the ISBE guidance, except where the student has committed one of three serious violations described in state law. Even then, unless the school seeks to force the student out through a due process hearing, the student can be involuntarily outplaced for only up to 45 days, and then must be returned to the original school, again with a written plan for addressing the behavior.

I have spoken with or become aware of a number of OPRF parents whose children with disabilities have been banished to what appear to be indefinite outplacements at alternative schools, with no plan for returning to OPRF. In hearing them describe their child’s discipline infraction, it did not seem that the infraction rose to a level serious enough to warrant forced outplacement under state law. Yet they felt they were given no choice about their child’s outplacement nor informed by OPRF Special Education administrators that the law limits alternative school outplacements to 10 days (45 days in cases of severe violations).

They were unaware if there was a written plan for their child specifying when the child would return to OPRF, though this is required by state law. Some of these students appear to have remained at these alternative schools year after year, cut off from their OPRF friends and community and stigmatized, until their graduation date.

Parents of students with disabilities at OPRF, know your rights. If your child with disabilities has committed a discipline infraction, read the information at http://isbe.net/spec-ed/pdfs/guidance_5-11.pdf. Do not allow OPRF Special Ed to send your child with disabilities to an outplacement over your objections. Don’t sign anything without consulting with an attorney, disability rights group or parent advocacy organization. Do not allow your child to be outplaced involuntarily without a due process hearing. Do not agree to a longer than 10-day suspension without a manifestation hearing if your child has violated a discipline rule. If your child with disabilities is already in an alternative school and you don’t want them there, demand a written plan for returning the child to OPRF.

Clearly, some students with severe disabilities will always need and thrive in private placements. But the situation at OPRF appears to be extreme. There is definitely more to this OPRF Special Ed budget item than meets the eye.

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