Disability group sues over Lakeland School

(Published August 2, 2006, 11:00 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

Disability Rights Wisconsin has made good on its promise to sue the Walworth County Board because of the county's plan to build a bigger school for disabled children.

Expanding the school size promotes segregation of students, said Attorney Jeffery Spitzer-Resnick, who represents the disabled persons advocacy group.

Spitzer-Resnick mailed the lawsuit against the county Friday to U.S. District Court in Milwaukee.

The lawsuit alleges the building of a bigger Lakeland School violates Americans With Disabilities Act standards that require school boards to educate children in the most integrated and least-restrictive environment possible.

In April, the county board approved financing for a $22-million school to be built on county land off County NN. The proposed 105,000-square-foot building would be about 42,700 square feet bigger than the existing school.

"If Walworth County had chosen to build a smaller school, we would not be suing. That's the bottom line," Spitzer-Resnick said.

"Children throughout the county have the right to be in the least restrictive environment. Walworth County is so far away from that," he said.

Supporters of Lakeland School say the facility offers another choice for parents of disabled children. Lakeland School educates "high-cost, low-incidence" students who are more severely disabled physically, mentally or emotionally.

"I don't believe we are" segregating children, Principal Greg Kostechka said. "I think it's apparent that this school is a choice. We do some mainstreaming activities that try to get the kids involved in the community as much as possible."

Some parents have moved to Walworth County so their child can be at Lakeland School, Kostechka said.

"They feel their children are in more of a school setting," he said. "When the kids walk through the door, it's like they have ownership of this (school)."

Diana Rodgers-Adkinson, chair of UW-Whitewater's special education department, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that special schools have disappeared and school districts have moved toward inclusion of students with special needs.

"If I'm at a separate school, then I'm also not around typical children, I'm not in the hallway with typical children, I'm not in the lunchroom with typical children," Rogers-Adkinson told the Journal-Sentinel. "When I'm in a different building, I'm in a different society."

Christene Eggie moved to Genoa City from Streamwood, Ill., because of Lakeland School. Her son, Jaxon, 7, has autism, cerebral palsy and is non-verbal.

"My son would flounder at a regular school," Eggie said. "It's a tragedy to think this (lawsuit) is a possibility.

"What this is doing is going against my civil rights and my child's civil rights to have an education," she said. "Meet my son, and you'll know that (Lakeland School) is the least restrictive environment he can be in."

Walworth County Special Education Director Tracy Moate said Lakeland School is a legal choice for parents. At least two legal analyses have shown that, she said.

"The parents have the choice. The parents have the option," Moate said. "If a parent feels they are not given an option, I haven't heard about it."

The legal opinions regard the existing school. They did not examine a school expansion, which Disability Rights Wisconsin questions.

Eggie, a former special education teacher, said a separate school for students with disabilities is a necessity.

"In Illinois, inclusion didn't work for everyone," she said. "For kids like my son, you'd be doing a great disservice by trying to include them in the classroom."

In the meantime, planning for the new Lakeland School will continue.

The county executive committee will likely examine the lawsuit when it meets in later this month, County Administrator David Bretl said. He had not read the complaint and declined to comment on specifics.

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