- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Special-education students were told to pick through recyclables and haul trash without pay as part of a Washington high school’s “Work Experience Program,” much to the outrage of some of their parents.

“It seems rather demeaning,” said John Finders, whose son participated in the program. “The thought of him doing that in front of the normal students just drove me nuts.”

Mr. Finders said his son, now 18, had been regularly digging through trash for recyclables, stacking cafeteria chairs and performing other janitorial tasks at Vancouver’s Heritage High School, often in front of other students.

School officials said many special-education students will do janitorial work after high school, so they believe the tasks are appropriate. The Evergreen School District’s “Work Experience Program” is aimed at teaching special-education students work skills that would help them get jobs and live independently after school.

Custodial work was part of the program because the district couldn’t find enough outside work sites for the students, said Richard Melching, superintendent of the school district in southwest Washington state.

“I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with the program, and I don’t believe that the staff has done anything that it shouldn’t have done,” Mr. Melching said. “The entire situation wouldn’t have arisen if it weren’t for the fact that we don’t have enough community-based work sites in the Heritage High School attendance area.”

The janitorial-work experience has been halted this year, although school officials say that this wasn’t in response to complaints, and the program may resume later.

Mr. Melching said the students weren’t required to pick through the garbage, but did sort through the recycling bins to separate bottles and cans.

The 23,800-student Evergreen School District has about 100 students in its Work Experience Program. About 25 were doing janitorial tasks at Heritage High last year. Special-education students at the district’s two other high schools didn’t do any janitorial work, officials said.

Other jobs in the program include mailroom sorting and retail work, such as stocking merchandise and folding clothes. Most jobs, including the school janitorial work, are unpaid.

Mr. Finders bristled at the school district’s defense.

“They define it as ‘life experience.’ My son’s not going to be going through trash cans when he’s out of there,” said Mr. Finders, a firefighter in Portland, Ore., just across the Columbia River from Vancouver.

The Washington Protection and Advocacy System, a private, nonprofit legal organization, is investigating to see whether students’ rights were violated.

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