On Monday, April 28, school administrators, FRS Connections representatives, and parents met in the Round Room in North Adams High School to discuss the planned usage of vacant classrooms for Family Recovery Services headed classes for Severely Emotionally Disturbed students. What began as an information session for parents developed into an airing of grievances, as parents voiced their objections to the plan.
Superintendent Rodney Wallace, Program Director J.D. Lyle of FRS Connections, and one school board member, John Lewis, were present to answer questions and address concerns. The meeting started with Superintendent Wallace explaining the basics of the program, but he was quickly fielding questions from the audience.
As this is a complex topic, background information is necessary for understanding the issues. Severely Emotionally Disturbed and Emotionally Disturbed students are defined as having one or a combination of the following issues:
- An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors;
- An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
- Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression;
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
Some of the characteristics and behaviors seen in children who have an emotional disturbance include:
- Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness);
- Aggression or self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting);
- Withdrawal (not interacting socially with others, excessive fear or anxiety);
- Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and
- Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level).
Severely Emotionally Disturbed students are ED students whose disabilities have reached a point that they require more focus with a higher staff to student ratio. North Adams High School already holds classes for ED students in the building. The ED classes have 10 full-time students and four students who only need occasional support. One teacher fully licensed in special education and one aide oversee these specialized classes, resulting in a one to seven staff to student ratio.
Currently the students that the school district has recognized as falling in the SED category are transported to two facilities out of the county. Seven students are transported to the FRS Connections facility in Hillsboro and one student is transported to the Child Focus Inc. Wasserman Youth and Adult Center in Batavia. This places an additional two hours of transportation time on these students, cutting into the academic and counseling time, as well as placing added stress as they travel the longer distances.
According to Superintendent Wallace, the plan is to use five vacant classrooms at the end of one wing on the lower level as facilities for SED students. The school district will contract with FRS Connections, who will provide licensed staff who are specially trained to handle SED students and one clerical staff member. The school will hire a licensed special-education teacher. The staff to student ratio is not to exceed one to three, and with seven students, three counselors, and one teacher the starting ratio will be one staff for every two students, not counting the clerical staff member.
Plans are for the largest room in the section, the former home economics classroom, to have its equipment removed and be renovated into the group meeting space and homeroom area. The narrow room next door is going to be the office space for the clerical staff. The other three rooms will be used as the classroom and two counseling areas.
One of the doors at the bottom of the stairwell will be fitted with a keycard entry so, instead of it only letting people out of the building, it will admit access t0 the SED students and the staff. At the top of the stairwell, the door will be refitted so it will allow students out of the hallway into the stairwell, but individuals will not be able to enter the hallway from the stairwell.
Severely Emotionally Disturbed students will change rooms at different times than the rest of the student population does, just like the ED students do now. These students will also be escorted by two staff members to the private restrooms in the main area near the round room. The staff will examine the restroom before the student enters, allow the student to use the facility, and examine the restroom afterwards, before escorting the student back to the classroom.
Parents wanted to know why North Adams was selected for this program. Board Member Lewis pointed out that North Adams has a smaller student population than other high schools thanks to a smaller overall population and the larger group of high school students who participate in the post-secondary option program. Therefore, they have the needed space.
Second, North Adams already has the ED classes located in their Elementary and High Schools. The staff from the SED program will be able to coordinate with those classes to monitor students to determine if any of them may need moved to the SED program, as well as provide assistance with the ED program if needed.
The third reason is that North Adams has been described as the “calmest” high school in the district, having the fewest number of incidents on a day-to-day basis, and SED and ED students need a calm atmosphere.
But why have the students in the High School at all? The school board and administration began looking at starting the SED program this time last year with plans to start the program in August. At that time, they started examining local facilities, including Oliver School, Bentonville, and Church 180. The facility would need a gymnasium and a kitchen, and these buildings had such facilities. However, issues with each facility excluded their use.
Another reason to include the students in the existing high school building is that moving the children to another facility can ostracize the children, which only serves to exacerbate the stress in their life, leading to even more challenges in helping them. By including them in the high school, they can still feel as though they belong to their community, and it will allow them to more easily be re-assimilated into the general student body.
Another question that was asked was why move the students at all from the FRS facility? As was mentioned earlier, Superintendent Wallace pointed out that the travel time reduces the amount of education and counseling for the students, while also increasing the amount of stress. Furthermore, the facility in Hillsboro is funded through a partnership with the Hillsboro City Schools, giving Hillsboro first option on placement. The Hillsboro facility is already at maximum capacity, and, if there is an opening, Hillsboro SED students are given those openings first, before any other school district.
Superintendent Wallace also clarified that, because the Hillsboro facility is full, the Adams County/Ohio Valley School District has students that qualify for the SED program but are not in the program. As there is no opening for them, though, they are currently enrolled in the ED program, which, as was mentioned previously, is in the middle of the school rather than at one end of the school. Thus students who could be moved to an SED program are instead currently in the middle of the high school in the regular ED classes.
Concerns over whether this idea had been made publically. Both Superintendent Wallace and Mr. Lewis confirmed that the plan had been discussed at multiple schol board meetings throughout the year, and school board meetings are open to the public. Individuals are also allowed to speak at school board meetings for a set amount of time, as long as they sign up prior to the start of the meeting. Additionally, a letter to the editor concerning this issue was printed in The People’s Defender on December 18, 2013.
Once the facility is established, counseling will be open to regular students as well. The design of this facility will only allow a maximum of 10 to 12 students, however, the school district hopes to find a larger facility to use so there is room to expand to the outlined maximum of 30, similar to the Hillsboro facility.
Western Brown High School in Brown County opened a similar program in August, contracting with Talbert House to provide the counseling services. One concerned parent stated that Western Brown keeps the SED students in a separate section that is closed off from the rest of the high school. Research found this not to be accurate. Many of the changes made to Western Brown are very similar to what is proposed for North Adams. They too house the SED students in a section that shares a hallway with the general student population.
Western Brown also offers equine therapy, letting the children work with horses as a therapeutic means of helping their emotional turmoil. The Western Brown program received an Exceptional Achievement Award for their program, and currently no incidents worse than what is normally experienced at a high school have been reported.
The issue of costs and savings was brought up during the meeting as well. The school district stands to save money through this program. The FRS Connections program is compensated through Medicaid for their services. The addition of one teacher licensed for special education would be a cost the school district will have to cover. However, savings would come from the reduction in costs associated with busing the SED students.
The administration was unable to clarify where these overall savings would go, as the details of the funding are complex. The school board can’t simply throw the savings from one budget area into the general fund and use it wherever they wish.
Superintendent Wallace reiterated many times that the point of the program was to service the students of the district.
“These are our kids. They belong to our communities. Ethically and legally we can’t refuse them an education,” Wallace said. “I was the principal of North Adams High School. I have two grandchildren who will be attending North Adams High School in a few years. I have no interest in doing anything that would harm North Adams.”
Most of the parents argued that they weren’t asking for the students to be denied an education or treated as outsiders, but for them to be housed in a separate facility.
The Ohio Department of Education Office of Exceptional Children could not be reached for comment.
Paul Hannah can be reached at (937) 549-2391.