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The Long Road to Including Special Needs Education in Catholic Schools

David Bleasedale

William Van Ornum - published on 10/02/13

The costs are enormous, but the need is great, so more and more Catholics are working hard to make sure all children can receive a Catholic education.

This subject interests me on many levels. At the beginning of my career in clinical psychology, I worked directly with hundreds of people with developmental disabilities. Serving as an expert witness for parents, I helped to implement the federal laws noted below. Later, as clinical director of a day treatment program, and serving as a board member of a Catholic agency, I learned about the complexity and challenge of running a special education program. For 25 years, I have woven the research on developmental disabilities into the curriculum for various college courses. Most of all, I have learned in great detail what it means to have a developmental disability from my 28-year-old son who has Down syndrome, and who has become the greatest teacher of all to me.

For decades, it was all but impossible for parents to enroll their special needs child in a Catholic school. These children – with conditions such as learning disabilities, autism, Down syndrome, developmental disabilities, emotional problems, and others – needed to receive their education in public schools, despite the mandate in the Vatican II document on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis (October 28, 1965), which proclaimed that “all children, in virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an inalienable right to education, adapted to their ability,” and noted as well the responsibility of Catholic schools to offer both moral and academic education to students. For decades, this document has been interpreted to mean that Catholic parishes must offer opportunities such as CCD classes for its children who attend public schools. Now, a wider interpretation suggests that the spirit of this document is to integrate special needs children fully into Catholic schools. In even the recent past, some children with special needs found it difficult to even gain entrance into CCD programs, let alone a full school day. Now this is changing.

In the United States, public schools (rather than Catholic schools) have shouldered special education. In reaction to Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé of the Willowbrook State School – where children were shown unsupervised and covered with urine and feces, legislators in the United States (following a number of Supreme Court decisions, e.g.,Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1972; Goss vs. Lopez, 1974; and Mills vs. Board of Education, 1972) enacted sweeping new laws. In 1976, these and other court cases became the basis for Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Act. This legislation covered children ages 3-21, and afterwards Public Law 94-157 was enacted to fund special education for children from birth to age 2.  These laws were modified in 1992 and 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

This combined legislation mandates the following: (1) All children, regardless of handicap (slight to severe), are guaranteed a free public education. (2) This needs to occur in the least restrictive environment. For example, if a child is able to succeed in a regular classroom, he or she should not be placed in a self-contained classroom with lower functioning individuals. (3) The level of education must be “appropriate,” although it does not have to be the best level possible. (4) Education must occur close to the child’s residence. Lawmakers added this stipulation to stop the practice of school districts that shuttled special education students as much as 50 miles each way from their home and neighborhood.

The financial costs to implement these mandates have been tremendous, beyond the ability of any private school system (such as Catholic schools) to offer these programs to all children. For example, the services of a specialized consulting teacher trained in learning disabilities is in the thousands of dollars per school year for each student. The financial curve for more serious exceptionalities rises steeply. A self-contained classroom, where six to twelve children are taught by specialized teachers and aides, runs in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $50,000 per child. Day treatment programs for students with severe disabilities – with specialized staff, including psychiatrists, psychologists, speech therapists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists – cost as much as $70,000 per child. Residential care, for children who have been traumatized by physical abuse, sexual abuse, or violence, costs upwards of $100,000 per child. Severely disturbed autistic children with behaviors such as head-banging or other self-abuse may require treatment costing $250,000 for each student enrolled.

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