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6/23/19 ABSS retools elementary mental health services

ABSS retools elementary mental health services
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 6/23/19    
Reprinted with permission.
      
Changes are coming for Alamance-Burlington schools’ most vulnerable students.

At the Board of Education meeting Tuesday, June 18, Chief Special Education Officer Keisha Banks presented a new structure for elementary school kids dealing with severe mental health issues.

As it is now, these students are enrolled in Turning Point, based at Ray Street Academy in Graham. Since Ray Street doesn’t serve elementary-age children, these students don’t have the opportunity to mingle with their neurotypical classmates the way that middle and high schoolers in the program can, and that puts them at a disadvantage.

As a result, they aren’t transitioning back to their home schools. Instead, many remain in the program throughout middle school and high school. They also lack access to electives like art and music, which could equip them with positive coping skills.

It took a 2016–17 state audit for ABSS to realize these issues, and while corrections have been made since, this is the first time the district is proposing a major change.

The proposed solution is this:

Elementary school students will be moved out of Turning Point and placed in one of three elementary schools: E.M. Holt, Garrett or Hillcrest.

In 2018–2019, 25 elementary school students were in need of these services. If that number increases, the school system will consider additional sites.

Each school will have a “district-level Exceptional Children therapeutic classroom” equipped with the necessary staff and resources to care for these children. But they will have the added benefit of being able to interact with their neurotypical peers once they’ve shown they’re ready.

This also benefits the other students.

“We’ve talked with all three principals,” Banks said. “They are all excited about the classrooms coming to their buildings, and they’re excited about the possibilities that that will bring for their schools because the mental health therapist will be able to provide support for the [whole] school as well as training for teachers and staff on therapeutic strategies, not just for those therapeutic classrooms, but schoolwide, as well as restorative justice practices and trauma informed therapy.”

The board reacts

While the plan sounds good, board members had a litany of questions and concerns.

“Do the parents have an inkling that this may happen? Or current students in the program?” Wayne Beam asked.

Banks said she planned to meet with parents and introduce them to the new staff by the end of June, which Patsy Simpson didn’t appreciate. It should “have been done in January so that these parents could be notified,” Simpson said. “These children, from what I understand and what I’ve seen, it takes a lot for them in terms of them adapting to their learning environment. It is unacceptable that we are in June and we expect these children, in August, to go to new schools, and we haven’t met with these parents. I’m not arguing with you. I know you’re new. But it is unacceptable — Bill Harrison, if you’re watching — for previous superintendents and others in this administration who knew that we had not been in compliance [not to tell us].”

There were also concerns about bullying.

“I’m not feeling good about that,” Simpson said. “I’ve seen the protection of Turning Point, and I understand why you have to do it, but I don’t want parents coming before us saying, ‘My child already suffers from being different, and they’re being bullied at school.’”

Superintendent Bruce Benson stepped in to say he’d seen this model work elsewhere without issue.

“I understand the concern, I do,” he said. “And it’s a shift in a delivery model for us, but this is not a new model. This model has been in place in lots of schools all across the country. We used this model at my last school system. If everyone does their job, it works really well. We know we’ve got things we have to attend to. We don’t want to increase any burden or hardship for our children or our parents, but we also want to put them in the least restrictive environment where they can be successful. And we want them to be successful.”

The item didn’t require a vote.