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Former E. Idaho superintendent blames alcohol

By Casey Santee
Pocatello, Idaho (AP) 3-09

Prenatal exposure to alcohol is the reason a high percentage of American Indian students in School District 25 are identified as disabled and placed into special education programs, according to a former superintendent of Shoshone-Bannock schools.

He should know.

Jody Crowe spent 18 years as an educator on four reservations during his career. He now lives in Minnesota, where he advocates for awareness of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, previously called fetal alcohol syndrome.

Crowe said the Idaho State Department of Education, which last fall notified District 25 that it was identifying too many tribal students for special education, is off base. He said the unfortunate fact is that alcohol use by American Indian mothers is higher than average, compared with other racial or ethnic groups.

``In the tribal schools that I've worked, we've been told we shouldn't have more than 15 percent of the kids identified in special education. That's the average across the nation. (The U.S. Department of Education) says if you have more than that, you must be misidentifying students,'' Crowe said. ``What I told them is, there's an elephant in the middle of the room and we're all talking around it. The elephant is the brain damage from prenatal exposure to alcohol.''

Krissy Broncho, a licensed clinical social worker at Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Counseling and Family Services, is one of the few persons in the Western United States trained to diagnose FASD.

She said problems stemming from prenatal exposure to alcohol, which include varying degrees of mental retardation, anxiety and impulse control issues, among others, is prevalent among all racial and ethnic groups. The severity of the disorder depends not only on how much alcohol a woman consumes during pregnancy, but also in which trimester. Cognitive impairments are usually most severe when the drinking occurs within the first trimester as the brain stem is forming, she says.

``A lot of times we'll see kids, depending on the level of damage, that could be anywhere from mental retardation to pretty low IQ levels,'' Broncho said.

Counseling and Family Services began sending employees, including Broncho, to the University of Washington in 2001 to learn how to diagnose FASD when it became clear that many of the children being assessed didn't fit the criteria for other psychological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Dave Miner, a District 25 school psychologist and licensed professional counselor, said the district doesn't diagnose FASD. Rather, he and the other psychologists use standardized tests to screen students having trouble in the classroom before placing them in special education.

``It's not like anyone says, 'This child has fetal alcohol syndrome and is Native American.' The district is color-blind in that respect,'' Miner said. ``It has to do with how the child performs with the curriculum.''


He said the tests, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, are standardized for students whose primary language is English, which includes most of the Fort Hall children attending District 25 schools. However, if English is a student's second language, supplemental, nonverbal tests may be used.

Officials with the State Department of Education and District 25 representatives will meet this month to discuss the content of the state's letter, which was sent in response to federal regulations set up to monitor the percentage of special education students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

``Pocatello was found to have significant disproportionate representation of Native Americans identified as having learning disabilities,'' according to the letter, which also states that District 25 needs to do a better job of distinguishing between a ``difference'' and a true ``disability.''

``General education teachers need the knowledge and skills to use classroom strategies that benefit second language learners so that students are not inappropriately referred to special education,'' the letter continues.

It orders the district to review its policies, procedures and practices used to identify students for special education and revise them to correct the problem. The letter also instructs the district to divert nearly $368,000 from the special education budget and use the money to set up other tiers of intervention within the classroom to ``further prevent inappropriate referrals to special education.''

Melissa McGrath, Department of Education spokeswoman, said the department is willing to work with district officials to resolve the issue.

``It's pretty difficult to say one way or another how they were identified without knowing the specific circumstances,'' McGrath said. ``A school district can identify a student as having special needs or place them in special education for a variety of reasons.

``If a school district has an overrepresentation of a particular population in special education then we begin a process of working with the district to review that district's policies and procedures on how they identify students. We are in that process now,'' she said.

Crowe, who was fired as Fort Hall's top school administrator in 2007, is one of several superintendents terminated on the reservation during the past decade.

He said that what School District 25 is dealing with shouldn't be blamed on cultural differences.

``In my experience, this is not a cultural problem. It's a prenatal exposure to alcohol problem. Until the communities recognize that, they will always throw up the smoke screen of culture,'' Crowe said.

Taking the matter a step further, Crowe said that the entire country needs to become educated about the symptoms and effects of FASD, which he called a major problem for all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

``It is so socially acceptable. It's legal for a woman to drink until she kills her baby, for goodness sakes,'' Crowe said. ``The solution is, until we know how much it's impacting us on a daily basis, we won't get the willpower as a society to do something about it.''