Polk Emerson is mute. He cannot go to the bathroom by himself. He frequently runs away from caretakers, sometimes into the street. He is 19, but has the mental age of an 18-month-old, according to evaluations by specialists. He attends year-round a private facility for students with special needs in Pennsylvania.

For the past 10 months, DC Public Schools has been trying to transfer him to his neighborhood school, Dunbar Senior High School.

"He'd be dead or in the hospital within a week," says his father, Bill Emerson.

Public students, private schools
D.C. schools officials determine when the public schools can't meet the needs of their special education students through observations, parental and school input, and sometimes through hearing officers, said DC Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz. "Students are typically placed in nonpublic schools who have complex academic or behavioral needs, that require a more restrictive setting and level of service than cannot be met in a public school setting," she said. "Students with significant behavior needs may require a high level of therapeutic intervention as part of their educational program."

Parents and attorneys of special education students in the District say DCPS is pushing children out of specialized private schools and back into their neighborhood schools in an effort to meet a directive from Mayor Vincent Gray to cut in half the number of special needs students in private placements by 2014 -- moving 1,100 of them.

In the process, the city is saving money and boosting the reputation of its public schools. But it's also shortchanging the system's most at-risk students by putting them in schools that can't handle them, parents and lawyers say.

Under federal law, the District must pay the private-school tuition of special education students whose needs the public schools can't meet. The city has long struggled with providing adequate services. In the 2010-2011 school year, 18 percent of the city's nearly 12,000 special needs students were enrolled at private facilities, a rate six times the national average.

Private placements are expensive. The city expects to spend $109.9 million next school year to support the 1,700 students in the facilities.

The city has been aggressive in reducing that number. When Gray took office, 2,204 students were enrolled in private placements. By 2014, the city will have moved an additional 598 students into public schools.

Both the mayor's office and DCPS say decisions are being made solely on the students' well-being.

"It's clearly not our intention to force anything onto families and children," said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. "The administration will not ask a single child or family to return to DCPS until we can provide them with a quality educational option equal to or better than their current nonpublic placements out of district."

Nathaniel Beers, chief of DCPS' Special Education Office, said he could not comment on specific cases, but "we take every instance and situation about our students with disabilities on a case-by-case basis. There is no rubber stamping at DCPS."

From 2010-2011 to 2011-2012, the number of DCPS special education students attending their neighborhood schools rose by 261 students to 6,783, with 83 being transferred from private placements.

Eight-year-old Aiden Hadley is aging out of a 17-student private school for autistic students. His mother, Yetta Myrick, says he can't handle fluorescent lighting or crowded cafeterias, but Myrick says DCPS won't allow her to consider anything but their neighborhood school, Barnard Elementary. They have a hearing Monday.

"They will not even let me look at other D.C. public schools. Only Barnard," Myrick says. "It's ridiculous that parents have to fight for what is appropriate, but they want to save money."

Attorney Carolyn Houck, who represents Emerson, says the city is finding subtler ways to cut costs, too. A 14-year-old boy she represents was enrolled at a private school in Colorado for students with special needs who can be violent. The boy was kicked out of the "lockdown facility" in April when he put a television in a bathtub, attempting to start a fire. DCPS is recommending he be placed at a day school in Baltimore, rather than a full-time facility recommended by psychologists.