LINCOLN, Neb. — A disability rights organization is starting a project to train volunteers to help parents of students with special needs advocate for including their children in regular classes.

The volunteers will accompany parents to meetings with school staff to develop a plan — called individualized education programs — for their child’s education, and they’ll help parents advocate for including those students in regular education classes, said Pat Cottingham, project coordinator for Disability Rights Nebraska, the organization spearheading the advocacy program.

Schools are required to develop individualized education programs — known as IEPs — for students who receive special-education (remove hyphen?) services that specify what services will be provided by the schools.

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The organization gets calls from parents frustrated with their children’s IEPs, and often parents feel intimidated and reluctant to advocate for something other than what school officials suggest, Cottingham said.

The volunteers will get 35 hours of training and each volunteer will be asked to commit to attending meetings for six students.

Federal education law entitles every student to a free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment necessary to meet their needs.

The concept of inclusion is to educate all students, regardless of the challenges they face, in general education classes in their neighborhood schools and bringing any support they need to the classroom.

Cottingham said her organization advocates for full inclusion, which it defines as making sure students with disabilities have access to the same things as other students, including curriculum.

The advocates will help parents make sure the IEPs set challenging goals with high expectations, she said.

Often, the idea of “inclusion” for students with disabilities is the goal in Lincoln, but in reality that often doesn’t happen, Cottingham said.

“Kids with specific learning disabilities in reading or math are very easily included. Kids with intellectual disabilities oftentimes are not,” she said. “They’re funneled into life skills classes where they don’t have access to the general curriculum. Then they’re separated from their peers so they don’t have the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships.”

The advocates won’t be there in an adversarial position, she said.

“I think (Lincoln Public Schools) is doing a really good job,” she said. “I just think we need to take another perspective and see how we can do it better.”

Nationally, 62.5 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their time in general education classrooms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But just 39.7 percent of students with autism spend that much time there. It’s true for 47 percent of students diagnosed with emotional disturbances and just 16.3 percent of students diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.

Specific numbers for Lincoln Public Schools weren’t immediately available.

The advocacy program is modeled on a similar project began in Georgia, Cottingham said, and her organization has a similar volunteer advocacy program for adults in the community. But they want to focus their efforts earlier.

“Our thought is if we start early and kids are just included by the time they’re done with school they’ll know people, they’ll have social skills necessary to maintain a job,” Cottingham said. “The focus has been on adults forever. We’re saying now the focus needs to be on kids to get them ready to be adults.”

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