Odd Child Out
Mark is not a run-of-the-mill discipline problem. He has autism, an incurable behavioral disorder that interferes with the brain's ability to process information and creates an inability to relate to others. Last May, the Loudoun County school system decided that Mark should no longer stay full-time at Ashburn, despite the widely mandated educational policy of mainstreaming disabled children into regular classes. But federal law—the 1988 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—prevents the school from sending him to a nearby special program for autistic children without his parents' permission, which Joseph Hartmann, 49, and his wife, Roxanna, 45, adamantly have refused to give. "If we want him to live in society," insists Joseph, a State Department desk officer, "our duty is to have him grow up with his peers in that society."
As a result the Loudoun County school system asked Virginia's state supreme court to appoint a special-hearing officer to decide whether Mark should attend regular classes at Ashburn or divide his time between a special education program and regular classes at Ashburn in music, art and physical education. The case, which is still being heard, is being closely watched by the nation's educators since it could set a precedent for the country's 4.7 million physically and emotionally disabled youngsters. If Mark is sent to the special education classes, says Beth Bader of the American Federation of Teachers, it would be the first time since the 1988 law was passed that a school district has successfully removed a disabled child, no matter how disruptive, from regular classes. "Mark has a federal right to education," Bader says. "The other children have no rights." Yet Ruth Sullivan, director of the Autism Services Center in Huntington, West Va., says, "There can be very successful mainstreaming. It depends on the teacher and support."
The Hartmanns—who also have a nondisabled daughter, Laura, 10—say they were "devastated" when Mark was given a diagnosis of autism, which affects some 380,000 people in the United States. Mark had initially seemed normal. But shortly after he began to talk at age 2, says his father, he started to "recede" from social activity. Soon Mark stopped speaking altogether and entered his own world. "It's like being trapped in a cell," explains Hartmann. "He can see, hear and understand, but he can't participate in the world around him."
After learning all they could about the disorder, the Hartmanns decided to mainstream Mark, enrolling him in the Butterfield Elementary School near Chicago, where they were living at the time. They were thrilled, Joseph says, that regular classes seemed to work with the help of special instructors. "His anxiety was reduced," Hartmann says. "He had good buddies in kindergarten." With special therapy, Mark even learned to find his classroom on his own and to hold hands with peers. "He became part of the school," his former principal, Sandra Truax, recalls. "We felt he was making great strides."
Then last year the Hartmanns moved to the Washington area and enrolled Mark at Ashburn. His progress halted abruptly—in part, his parents believe, because of his difficulty adjusting to change. In fact he regressed, throwing tantrums and distracting his peers. This year five families asked to have their children transferred from his class. By June, Mark had learned only two things and then only through private tutoring: adding numbers up to five and typing words that were spelled out for him. This was not from lack of trying, says principal McDonald. She says she attended nearly 100 meetings last year with teachers and specialists trying to create an effective teaching plan for him.
Ashburn, Hartmann believes, has not mainstreamed Mark properly. "These folks didn't have the first clue on how to deal with him," he says. Meanwhile, he argues, his son's mounting frustration is reflected in his increasingly disruptive behavior. And he worries that Mark will regress further.
The school district agrees, and, says Kathy Mehfoud, Loudoun's attorney, that is exactly why special classes are needed. "The easiest thing would be to let him sit in that classroom," she says. "In 10 years he would end up with no skills at all." Adds Frank Johnson, Loudoun's director of special education: "We're trying to make him look like a regular student in a third-grade class. Frankly we're wasting his time."
With his education on the line, Mark continues to attend regular classes at Ashburn until a decision is reached and appeals, if filed, are heard. Meanwhile the Hartmanns refuse to back off, though Roxanna, summing up the past few months, says sadly, "We've lost six years of hard work with Mark. It's been a nightmare."
ROCHELLE JONES in Loudon