Advocates worried about disabled school study
Jefferson City, MO – A study under way aims to determine whether state schools for the severely handicapped provide the best use of state resources, an idea that's worrying some families and advocates for the disabled.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioned the study.
LAN Resources of St. Joseph said Monday it has conducted research and interviews and expects to present a draft report to state education officials in about a week. The study looks at how students with severe disabilities are being taught, what other states do and whether Missouri's structure is an effective use of funding.
A separate State Government Review Commission reported to Gov. Matt Blunt last year that Missouri is the only state in the country with state-sponsored schools for the severely handicapped, rather than handling them locally, and that those schools don't teach as many students as they used to. The panel recommended the study, saying that state schools, established in 1957, used to teach about 3,000 children.
Missouri has 36 state-run schools for the severely handicapped that teach about 1,000 students, while about 60 local districts teach another 300.
Sheila Scott's 10-year-old son, Chandler, has severe cerebral palsy and sometimes endures dozens of seizures a day. Scott, of Festus, said the boy used to attend school through the Jefferson County Co-op, which offers special education services for most districts in the county south of St. Louis.
But Scott said she removed her son from the school a few years ago after the child fell out of his chair because he wasn't properly restrained. He recently began his second year at the Mapaville State School and is doing well, she said. "I've seen so much improvement in him," she said Monday. "He loves going to school. The structure has been so good for him."
Scott said regular public schools can't handle the issues and behaviors that severely disabled children exhibit. "If he could be in a regular public school district, he would be," she said.
Charles McClain, a reform commission member who focused on education, said he hoped the study would help determine whether Missouri's system is best, "or if the others have discovered something that we should discover."
"I would assume that it's a good deal of duplication because there would be separate administrations, transportation, food contracts," he said.
An education department spokesman said there is no proposal to close the schools. "We know there's some buzz out there, some concern by parents," department spokesman Jim Morris said.
"The fact that this study has been conducted, that's created some anxiety, which we would like to allay. There's been no recommendation to close the state schools."
Blunt's office also said he is not calling for shutting down the schools. "No decisions have been made," spokesman Brian Hauswirth said. "We'll see what's in that report."
But those assurances don't ease many minds. Advocates say local schools aren't equipped to handle the needs of students who often can't feed themselves or use a bathroom, and may have weakened immune systems, frequent seizures or other medical problems.
"The children that attend these schools need total care," said Craig Henning, executive director of the Disability Resource Association in Crystal City.
Past administration actions also worry him, such as Blunt's call for closing Bellefontaine Habilitation Center and efforts to end the First Steps program, which serves toddlers with developmental disabilities.
"We are concerned that it could be a done deal," Henning said. "The governor's office needs to understand that if they do this they need to pour in the billions in resources to get everything set up statewide at a tremendously greater cost to taxpayers."
Hilary Schmittzehe, director of a sheltered workshop in Cape Girardeau who is active with Mentally Retarded Citizens of Missouri, helped push to start state schools. He said his daughter benefited from them.
"I do not know why the state would want to discontinue the state schools," he said. "The technical support is not in the local districts, especially in smaller-population cities and towns."
McClain said he understood that parents would have concerns. "If they can be convincing that that's the best arrangement and something else would be less than desirable, then I'm sure they will continue as they are," he said.