Why is Madison planning to warehouse disabled kids?

School board takes up expensive, segregated facility plan tonight

Disability rights banner (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Disability rights banner (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

UPDATE: The plan was discussed Monday night at the Board of Education. A vote on the proposed purchase is scheduled for the board’s Dec. 16 meeting.

Hi, I’m Nicki Vander Meulen, and I am pleased to meet all of you readers virtually. I am a juvenile attorney with a passion for special education law. I currently serve on the Madison Metropolitan School Board (I’m the first openly autistic member) and I am a disability advocate in my spare time.  

Today I’m writing as a disability advocate about my concerns regarding the purchasing of a property to house disability programs at 333 Holtzman Road. The $4.5 million purchase of a building to house “alternative” students (kids with disabilities) is unnecessary and lacks basic decency.  It also comes with an enormous price tag. Why would Madison spend so much money to warehouse students away from their peers?

The plan, which took shape behind closed doors, and will be the subject of public debate for the first time tonight, is a terrible idea.  

Ironically, the school district once had a Badger School that served only special education students in the same neighborhood where the building is located. That school was closed when the students were integrated with their peers into neighborhood schools.   

MMSD and inclusion

MMSD preaches inclusion. We focus on how every child will be college, career and community ready, but one must ask is the education provided by MMSD truly inclusive? 

Under federal law children with special needs must be placed in the least restrictive environment to meet their needs. The statute states, “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled.” It also states that  “Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily in determining the least restrictive environment for a child.” 

MMSD’s Special Education plan states that:

“MMSD aims to move past compliance requirements and support each student with a disability within the most inclusive educational environments to reach their fullest individual potential.”  

“We wish to have successful inclusive schools,” the plan states. “All students including those with disabilities lose neither services nor support, but gain the opportunity to have full membership and to grow in functional and meaningful ways in the social and learning contexts of their nondisabled peers. Inclusive schools are designed to meet the educational needs of all their members within common, yet fluid, environments and activities.” 

Clearly kids can’t benefit from being with nondisabled peers when they can’t even share the same school.

The separate facility on Holtzman Road is also flies in the face of the spirit of federal special education law.

The term Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) comes up frequently in special education cases. In exchange for special education funding, the  state must provide a free  appropriate public education — a FAPE, for short — to all eligible children. That includes both “special education” and “related services.” 

Special education” is “specially designed instruction . . . to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability;” “related services” are the support services “required to assist a child . . . to benefit from” that instruction.” 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), passed by Congress in 1975, states must provide a disabled child with such special education and related services “in conformity with the [child’s] individualized education.

Congress has stated that “education of students with disabilities can be more effective by “having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access in the general curriculum to the maximum extent possible.” IDEA was last updated in 2004.

The world has changed greatly since 2004. Shouldn’t our approach to teaching children with disabilities change, too?

In order to meet disabled children’s individual needs, schools follow an Individual Education Plan (IEP), drafted in compliance with a detailed set of procedures. 

An IEP team including teachers, school officials, and the child’s parents, makes decisions with and on behalf of the student.

Two major special education standards 

In the Supreme Court’s Rowley decision, the most significant case concerning the interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Court found that schools must provide IDEA eligible students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” 

In Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court set out a two-part test to determine if a free, appropriate public education is being provided:

1) Has the State complied with procedures set forth in the Act? 

2) Did the child to receive educational benefit? 

In a more recent case, Endrew F vs Douglas County the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-0 vote, with Justice Neil Gorsuch recusing himself, stated that “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP [individualized education program] that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” 

It’s important to understand that Endrew F does not overrule the Rowley case. In fact, Justice Roberts goes into detail explaining that if a child is not fully integrated in the regular classroom, the focus on a free, appropriate public education shifts even more to the “unique circumstances of the child.” 

Since state, local and federal standards have all evolved in the same direction, why is Madison buying a building to put disabled students off on their own? No matter how you look at it, segregating students on the basis of disability in a building away from their peers is simply unacceptable.