Mislabeling students as mentally retarded is rampant in Fitchberg, Massachusetts according to the State Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. [Download Mislabeled_Students.doc] Nearly one-fourth of all students in the district have been labeled mentally retarded which is nearly four times the state average. One investigatory report concluded the number of students who were mislabelled was "extraordinary."
One reason for the mislabeling, according to a state official, is that to provide a label of mental retardation requires less paper work as opposed to "'specific learning disability, for instance, a huge amount of paperwork is required, while this is not the case with intellectual impairment." Another reason is that the U.S. Department of Education is chronically remiss in its enforcement efforts. In 2002 the DOE found that Fitchberg committed 20 violations of law, and in 2005 the same issues remained unfixed.
While labels should not determine goals, services or placement, most parents realize all too well that the label is not merely an eligibility standard; IEPs are frequently developed or not developed depending upon the label assigned. I have had clients who were mislabeled mentally retarded because the child had Downs Syndrome without considering the individual child and that many children with Downs have average intelligence. Another child did not qualify under an LD label, but clearly had LD-type issues. She was denied LD services until she was later qualified pursuant to additional evaluations provided by the parents. The argument, which the school would not accept, was the child's needs legally and practically should determine services not the label.
Positive steps that parents can take to probe the validity of the their child's eligibility label:
- Probe and understand the nature of the testing being given and the meaning of the scores provided;
- Demand test protocols be sent to you and any psychologist that you are working with;
- Always make a gut level determination as to whether the label makes sense with your knowledge of your child;
- Seek an independent educational evaluations ("IEE") from the school or if possible hire your own expert;
- Keep portfolios of work that may be important proof that the evaluation and label provided make no sense in light of the work product and other anecdotal evidence [I tend to keep all work product over a period of many years as an important check on the process];
- Check and re-check the testing conditions--was the child tested in a quiet setting, did he or she have prescribed medications that day, was the child's blood sugar within normal limits at the time, was the child provided with his or her glasses or hearing aides during testing and were the hearing aides in the "on" position, and was the child well nourished and rested prior to testing.
A mislabeled child can be misplaced for years, receive wrong or inappropriate services and miss out on vital educational opportunities. Issues surrounding testing and labelling are worth close scrutiny and vigorous advocacy.