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The legality of a program implemented in connection with a self-contained special education classroom at Haven Middle School has been challenged in a complaint filed with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The complaint, filed by Haven parent Petra Guy on Sept. 9, alleges, “The policy requires that [Ms. Guy’s son] and his classmates be completely segregated from the general student population from the moment they arrive at school until the moment they leave the building at the end of the day.”

The complaint also alleges that students in the self-contained classroom cannot participate in physical education, fine arts, field trips, or any part of the general education curriculum unless they meet “a very stringent and complicated set of behavioral criteria.” In addition, each morning, students must announce to the class whether or not they satisfied the behavioral criteria during the previous day. The complaint alleges that Ms. Guy’s son, who has an emotional disability, has been humiliated by the new program and feels like he is an inmate in a prison.

District 65 administrators said the self-contained classroom is the least restrictive environment for the students assigned to the classroom, that the program contains a two-week transition period to assist students to become acclimated to the program and to mainstream classes and activities, and that students in the self-contained classroom were mainstreamed into physical education classes with other students and into the lunchroom starting Sept. 15.

The Program Document

A 12-page document describing the program, called “Rock To Learn! Learn To Rock!,” was distributed to students in the self-contained classroom on the first day of school. The document refers to students as “artists,” to teachers as “producers,” to the self-contained classroom as the “studio,” etc. The document states that when students arrive at the school, they must go straight to a meeting place where they will then be escorted to their classroom. Students must remain quiet. The document specifies expected behaviors for other parts of the day. The document says, “Artists [i.e., students] who show these behaviors will earn greater privileges and liberties.”

The document also lists five general rules, with a total of 18 separate criterion. The document states students “earn points” for meeting the expectations listed in the rules. Students are required to carry around a point sheet and, on ten occasions each day, each students is graded on compliance with five different rules.

According to the document, students may obtain mainstreaming “privileges,” such as being able to participate in intramural or extracurricular activities, or participating in physical education classes escorted by a teacher, if they “make” 80 percent of the points for the requisite number of days. Additional privileges may be obtained if students make 90 percent of the points for 20 or 40 days.

D65’s Rationale for the Program

In a conference call between the RoundTable and District 65 administrators, Haven principal Kathleen Roberson said the document was prepared over the summer, using best practices and research and other program models. She said it is still a draft and is a “guideline” or a “structure.”

Mike Biskupski, a consultant who assisted in the preparation of the program, said it pretty much reflects standard practice across the state and the nation for self-contained classrooms for children with an emotional disability. He said the two-week transition period, the behavioral rules and the point sheets help acclimate students, provide a structure for students and teach them not only what is expected of them but also strategies to assist them to move into the mainstream.

Dr. Marcy Canel, director of special services at Haven, said all students in the self-contained classroom started to participate in general education, physical education and lunch in the cafeteria as of Sept. 15, the end of the two-week transition period. She said students in the self-contained classroom were scored on the point sheets during the first few weeks, but that the scores were not determinative in deciding whether a student should be mainstreamed into physical education with other students or the lunchroom. She said the program does take away any right to be mainstreamed, but that it presents positive reinforcement of behaviors that assist children to be successful.

Geneva Oatman, director of special services for the District, said the two-week transition period was important because it taught desirable behaviors, set realistic goals and taught children about a support system. She added that IEP meetings were underway concerning children in the self-contained classroom, and parents could discuss the point sheets, specific behavioral goals for their children and strategies to meet those goals.

When asked if parents of children in the self-contained classroom were told about the program before the first day of school, administrators said it was not a new concept to parents.

The Response

Ms. Guy told the RoundTable she protested the new program on the second day of school and said it was never agreed to as part of her son’s IEP. She said she was told to bear with it. “I would never have given permission for my son to be isolated,” she told the RoundTable.

“On the first day they should have said, ‘It’s not a good idea; we shouldn’t have implemented it.’” She added that her son “did wonderfully last year” and now he is “breaking down. … It’s affecting his whole life.” She said the District cannot isolate emotionally disturbed students and then expect them to bounce back. “The damage to my son has been done,” she said.

“This is a violation of disabled students’ right to be educated in the least restrictive environment and is humiliating for these already vulnerable children,” said Cari Levin, founding director of Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE). “This program presumes that the disabled child be isolated in the most restrictive environment and requires them to earn access to a less restrictive environment.

“Aversive consequences are standard to behavior-modification plans. The key, however, is to focus on the positive. The students in this classroom at Haven started the school year feeling punished,” Ms. Levin added. “Unfortunately, the child in [Ms. Guy’s] complaint started the school year feeling punished.”

John Relias, the District’s attorney, defended the program in a separate interview with the RoundTable.