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Parents of special-education children object to a Salt Lake School District plan that would place their children in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

They say they were left out of the process that would mainstream the first group of students - those in seventh and eighth grades - next fall.The parents, experts and a teacher testified at the Salt Lake Board of Education Tuesday night that they fear physically, mentally and emotionally handicapped children will suffer if they are removed from the structured environment of the self-contained classrooms.

"We are asking the district to move cautiously and slowly so as not to set some of our students up for failure," said Shar Henderson, a special education teacher at East High School.

The special-education advocates have attended the past two board meetings protesting a district plan that officials say meets federal and state regulations of putting handicapped children in the "least restrictive environment." The plan would take children from specialized, districtwide programs and put them into neighborhood schools where they would be educated with their non-handicapped peers.

Tom Burchett, district special education director, said the mainstreaming plan is aimed at helping the handicapped children. "We want what's best for the students. We want them to be productive citizens . . .. We don't want to see the quality of any child's (educational) plan reduced."

Pat Miller, chairwoman of the Edison Elementary School Community Council, pleaded with the school board "not to put added stress on our already fragile academic environment."

She said her school organization voted to oppose the mainstreaming plan. The council said it wouldn't benefit the handicapped children now attending specialized programs or non-handicapped students in regular classrooms. Teachers would be stressed trying to divide time between the needs of handicapped students and their non-handicapped peers, many of whom are categorized as at-risk academically at Edison, she said.

Parent Sandra Tanner said parents and teachers have had little say in the mainstreaming plan. "Give parents a voice and a vote. I believe we are worthy of your trust," she said.

Carman Pingree, another parent, said she doesn't oppose mainstreaming, but she objects to the district's proposal because there is no written plan for implementation. There is no detailed description of the program, budget, composition of classes, teachers, student placement, evaluation process or outcome measures, she said.

"We think before the train leaves the station you ought to know where you're going and how we're going to get there," she said.

University of Utah child psychiatrist William McMahan agreed. He said the U. has had its own problems with announcing plans without supporting data. "I would request that Salt Lake not be known as the cold fusion of special education," McMahan said.

After taking two hours of testimony, the school board unanimously voted to place a moratorium on the special-education plan. Board members also directed administrators to establish a broad-based committee, which will include parents and special education teachers, to look at the issue.

Board member Ann Clawson, a former teacher, said she agreed with comments that the plan could cause problems for both handicapped and non-handicapped students. To make mainstreaming successful, the non-handicapped students will have to be educated before handicapped students are introduced into regular classrooms. "This is not a special-education program. This is a district program," she said.