TOWSON – Joshua Golden, 18, walked for the first time at age 14. His severe disabilities make it impossible for him to talk, so he communicates through picture cards.
Despite that, Joshua attends traditional math and family studies classes at Towson High School, which is his right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — or IDEA.
Getting the school system to recognize that right, however, was a battle for Joshua’s mother, Jackie Golden, who said county school systems are not getting the support or guidance they need to enforce the law.
Baltimore County school administrators agree with her, and a recent report by the National Council on Disability said many states, including Maryland, are not complying with IDEA.
Golden, who is also the chairwoman of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council and program manager for the National Parent Network on Disabilities, said schools and parents both “are in desperate need of support” when it comes to understanding and implementing the law.
“There is no guidance, no oversight. There’s no good model to say ‘This is how to provide an education to someone with significant disabilities,'” she said.
But advocates said IDEA could be implemented if federal and state governments committed themselves to enforcing the law.
“The burden of enforcing IDEA has been put on the backs of parents,” said Leslie Seid Margolis, an attorney for the non-profit Maryland Disability Law Center.
“One of the big problems has been a lack of enforcement by states and a lack of monitoring by local districts,” she said. “The state has an independent responsibility for finding problems.”
Advocates and school officials both say the state does not provide local school systems with adequate special education staff, training and resources to help pull disabled students from secluded programs and into traditional classes.
The state official who oversees Maryland’s special education programs acknowledged that there are some problems, especially with including disabled students in traditional classrooms. Assistant State Superintendent Carol Ann Baglin called the state’s program “a work in progress.”
“We do have a lot of kids who have gotten services in separate settings but we are working to improve that,” Baglin said.
Golden said improvements are needed to keep other parents from facing the headaches she faced when she tried to get Joshua placed in regular classes.
IDEA requires states to ensure that local schools teach special education students in the least-restrictive environment possible. But Golden said a lack of state help for local school systems often leaves the burden of finding the best education for a child on the shoulders of parents. That can be risky, Golden said, because most parents are not as informed as she is.
Golden said the state does make sure to inform parents of their children’s rights, but it does not tell them of the exact options the state provides.
Fighting for a disabled student’s rights, “takes such a tremendous amount of energy and finances … and often times parents don’t know where to go,” she said.
In Joshua’s case, the school system claimed it did the best it could with the minimal resources and oversight it had from the state.
Joshua has Angelman syndrome, which is characterized by severe developmental delay, speech impairment, movement or balance problems, and behaviors that can include easy excitability or frequent laughing and smiling, among other traits.
His was the first case in which the school had encountered a student with so many severe disabilities, officials said, and it took them a while to figure out exactly what Joshua needed to succeed in the classroom.
“Here is a young man who is high-school age who cognitively functions like an 18 month old,” said Joyce Reier, special education coordinator for the Baltimore County central area, which includes Towson. “And the challenges presented to this school in including him were new.”
The county has one “inclusion facilitator,” who has the difficult task of monitoring the placement of every special education student in the county’s 161 schools, Reier said. As a result, the facilitator neglected Joshua’s move to high school.
That neglect led to some problems. In his first class, he was not provided with cards for communicating and when he tried to communicate, his “vocalizations” upset parents who said he was a distraction to their children in class.
“In this situation, I guess, the transition seemed natural from Ridgely (Middle School) to Towson,” Reier said. “And it was after we ran into difficulty and Jackie helped us that we knew we needed to do more.”
If the state wants to make sure every disabled student gets an adequate education, the solution is simple, officials said.
“Additional personnel are needed to perhaps oversee some of the programs that need to be placed in the schools to ensure that (special education) students are successful,” said Jane Barranger, Towson’s assistant principal.
“And that goes both ways, because an encounter of a special education student with a regular education kid needs to be positive to both people,” Barranger said.
Teachers, meanwhile, said Joshua’s inclusion in regular classes has “made Towson a richer place to be.” And Golden said her determination has paid off for Joshua as well.
“He has made leaps and bounds in his achievements,” Golden said.