Growing up in the Ohio River town of Evansville, Ind., is hazardous to a child's developmental health. According to data from the Indiana Department of Education (DoE), 22 percent of students in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation receive special education services.
But that isn't the highest ratio of special ed kids on the Indiana side of the Ohio River Valley. That distinction belongs to the nearby town of New Harmony, on the banks of the Wabash River just north of its confluence with the Ohio, where more than one in four are special ed students.
The state's third largest school system is, however, reflective of Hoosier students living on the Indiana side of the Ohio watershed, from one end to the other. An analysis of DoE data for the 19 counties closest to the river show 20 percent of public school students receive what Indiana law calls "special education and related services."
The statewide figure is 17.5 percent. The data were collected in December of the 2008-09 school year.
"Regardless of diagnostic variations from district to district, the overall trends of special education in Evansville, New Harmony, the Ohio River Valley and the state of Indiana over the past decade are stark."
Indiana's "Special Education Rules" say public school systems must provide "free appropriate public education" to citizens between 3 and 22 years of age who are identified as disabled under the law. A provision called "Child Find" mandates the schools locate, identify and evaluate all students "who are in need of special education and related services in their districts, regardless of the severity of their disabilities."
Dawn McGrath, coordinator of special education for the DoE, said the Child Count Data, as the annual tallies are known, are as faithful as the process allows. "We're all trying to hit it head on, accurately," she said during an interview in her Indianapolis office. "It's a purpose we're charged with. It's certainly our goal to do it right."
Every school district in America is required by law to collect, maintain and submit Child Count Data to the federal government. The data are used to calculate funding for special education programs, among other things. Researchers and public health officials use them to estimate prevalence of diseases and conditions like autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Special education programs serve students whose conditions fall within any of 17 categories and negatively impact their educational performance in the traditional classroom. A searchable database called "Education Data" that the DoE posts online includes annual figures for all categories combined, for every school district in the state, from the 1997-98 to 2008-09 school years.
More detailed data obtained by The Bloomington Alternative breaks the numbers down into percent of enrollment by category. On Dec. 1, 2008, five diagnoses comprised the bulk of them statewide: Learning Disabled, 5.7 percent of the total school population; Communication Handicapped, 4.6 percent; Mildly Mentally Handicapped, 1.4 percent; Other Health Impaired, 1.2 percent; and Autistic, 1 percent.
"The trend lines show steady, yearly increases locally and statewide between the 1997 and 2007, when Evansville's peaked at 22.6 percent."
All special ed diagnoses together equaled 17.5 percent of the state's public school population. Those five categories accounted for 83 percent of them.
McGrath said the categories have not changed but that some of the language has. For example, the term handicapped was dropped by professionals years ago. "Handicapped is a term we haven't used for a decade, because that kind of means you're handy with your cap," she said. "It's kind of condescending."
Learning Disabled is now called Specific Learning Disabilities, Communication Handicapped is now Language or Speech Impairment, Mildly Mentally Handicapped is now Mild Cognitive Disability.
And some diagnoses, like autism spectrum disorders, are more complex than the old language suggests. ASDs represent a range of conditions that run the gamut from individuals who do not speak to geniuses, all of whom exhibit social, behavioral and communication deficits to widely varying degrees. Autistic is now Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The General Assembly updated the law to reflect the new vernacular in 2008. McGrath said DoE data from now on, starting with the 2009-10 school year, will incorporate it.
ADHD is included in the Other Health Impaired category, which also includes lead poisoning, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions, hemophilia, leukemia, Tourette syndrome and several others.
Diagnoses in Evansville diverge from state averages. The largest category of special ed pupils in the "Pocket City" is Language or Speech Impairment, 7.6 percent of the student population. Statewide, the average is 4.6. Autism, in contrast, is only diagnosed in 0.3 percent of Evansville students. Statewide the average is 1 percent.
"The growth statewide has come in two categories: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Health Impaired, which grew 500 percent and 600 percent, respectively."
Special ed officials at the local and state levels acknowledge that the diagnostic process is at least part art and not completely science.
Kathleen Hugo, who oversees special education in the Monroe County Community School Corp., said during a recent interview that a team of individuals, including school psychologists, parents and school officials, participate in the process. They "hopefully reach a consensus," she said, acknowledging that subjectivity does enter into the equation. "... There's not a blood test," she said.
The DoE's McGrath elaborated. "It's a case-conference decision, one student at a time, based on the people who are involved with the student," she said. "So, to the extent possible, we like to think that there is some consistency. But it's not like a bright line, like a score on a test."
State law dictates who must be involved in the process. "It's an evaluation team that brings together the information and presents it to the case-conference," McGrath said.
Regardless of diagnostic variations from district to district, the overall trends of special education in Evansville, New Harmony, the Ohio River Valley and the state of Indiana over the past decade are stark.
On Dec. 1, 1999, 15.3 percent of students statewide received special ed services. A decade later, the percentage had jumped to 17.5. The rate of increase was even higher in Evansville, where it grew from 18.8 to 22.1 percent.
"The Indiana counties that lie two-deep along the river run from Posey and Gibson on the Wabash River on the west to Ohio and Dearborn on the Whitewater River on the east."
The trend lines show steady, yearly increases locally and statewide between the 1997 and 2007, when Evansville's peaked at 22.6 percent. The last two years have shown slight annual declines.
The growth statewide has come in two categories: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Health Impaired, which grew 500 percent and 600 percent, respectively, in that decade. Each has increased year to year, with no fall off.
Specific Learning Disabilities and Language or Speech Impaired are at the same rates in 2007 as they were in 1997. Mild Cognitive Disability actually fell, from 1.8 percent of the state student population to 1.4 percent.
The Indiana counties that lie two-deep along the river run from Posey and Gibson on the Wabash River on the west to Ohio and Dearborn on the Whitewater River on the east. And they encompass an array of topography, demographics, environments and cultures.
The region is home to Evansville and its metro area, bedroom communities for Cincinnati and Louisville and some of the most rugged, forested terrain to be found in the Midwest. And the Ohio Valley, on the Indiana and Kentucky sides, is littered with coal-fired power plants and plastics and metals industries, which release enormous amounts of pollution into the air, water and land.
"Spencer County has two industries, AK Steel and the Rockport Power Plant, that release more toxics than all the industries in 10 major American cities combined."
Spencer County has two industries, AK Steel and the Rockport Power Plant, that release more toxics than all the industries in 10 major American cities combined, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The 19 counties are served by 41 public school districts with 121,800 students. Exactly 20 percent of them -- 24,363 -- receive special education.
Veteran Evansville environmental activist John Blair, president of ValleyWatch, said the connection between the pollution and the developmentally disabled kids is unavoidable. "The Ohio Valley has attracted lots of large industrial facilities that put huge levels of toxic and other pollutants out that are known to impact development," he said in an e-mail.
Foremost among those is mercury. "The whole region is a hot spot for mercury deposition in all its forms," he continued. "The burning of great quantities of coal has basically impacted our children's ability to learn. Every one of the really high counties on your list are directly downwind of a major power plant that has gone essentially uncontrolled for decades."
And the air-borne pollutants are but part of the story. After the coal is burned for electricity, toxic coal waste, which is laden with heavy metals, contaminates the groundwater.
"It is easy to see that, collectively, our children have paid a hefty price for others to have cheap energy," Blair concluded.
The earliest Indiana settlers came down the Ohio and overland through Kentucky, and historic communities dot the Valley.
The town of Madison is home to so many examples of 19th century architecture that its historic downtown walking tour is broken in two. The Madison Consolidated School system has 3,434 students, and 24 percent of them meet the criteria for disabled under Indiana law.
"Veteran Evansville environmental activist John Blair, president of ValleyWatch, said the connection between the pollution and the developmentally disabled kids is unavoidable."
The state's first capital, Corydon, is located in Harrison County. Kids there attend the South Harrison School District, where 19.1 percent of the 3,141 students are in special ed.
New Harmony was settled in the early 19th century by a German pietist named George Rapp, who moved his Harmonie Society there in 1814. Eleven years later, the Harmonists moved on, and Owen established a short-lived "Community of Equality" in the town.
According to the University of Southern Indiana's Historic New Harmony Web site, Owen and business partner William Maclure hoped to "establish a model community where education and social equality would flourish."
The town, the site continues, began almost 200 years ahead of its time. "New Harmony was first a spiritual sanctuary that later became a haven for international scientists, scholars, and educators who sought equality in communal living," it says.
New Harmony has maintained its architectural legacy, and its liberal roots continue to this day. According to the U.S. Census, almost half of New Harmony's 916 residents are employed in arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, food service, education, health or social services.
The New Harmony Town and Township School Corp. has 169 students. More than a quarter of them, 27 percent, receive special education.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .