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Parents, staff worried about plans for Fargo school for students with behavioral needs

Agassiz Woodrow Wilson High School marquis Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Fargo School District officials are trying to dispel misconceptions about plans for a small elementary school for students with severe behavioral needs after the School Board voted to remodel a space to accommodate the school despite concerns from parents and staff.

Superintendent Jeff Schatz says the new school, which would be in the Agassiz School in south Fargo, is meant to be temporary for students, and they would eventually be transitioned back to their neighborhood schools.

"In no way do we feel it would be institutionalizing anyone," he said. "It's a very welcoming space to get wrap-around services to assist them with challenges."

To qualify for the new school, a student may not have special physical or cognitive needs, Schatz said. They may just be exhibiting complex behaviors such as violence or be identified as emotionally disturbed or on the autism spectrum.

"There are kids with extreme behaviors that do not necessarily qualify for special education," he said.

A group that includes parents, counselors and teachers would decide whether a child should attend the school as part of the student's Individual Education Plan, or IEP. Schatz said while parents' wishes to not have their child in the school would be considered, they could be overruled if staff and specialists recommended it. He said overruling a parent would be an "extremely rare circumstance," one he has not seen in his career.

On Tuesday, May 8, more than a dozen parents, community members and current Agassiz staff spoke before the school board, mostly in opposition to the new school.

"This new school scares us," said Samantha Stewart, who has a child with special needs. "It's what we as parents of children with special needs have fought for years against. It's going back in time."

In a 5-4 vote, the board OK'd allocating about $4.3 million to remodel Agassiz School to accomodate what will be called a "Level D Setting" facility for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The West Fargo School District will contribute $250,000 each year for four years to help with the cost of remodeling and will also send students to attend.

'A dump-off program'

A pilot version of the new elementary school began in January at Agassiz, with four students, including Ashly Hafdahl's son.

"What was presented to us as a program that would provide specialists, specialized services and highly trained staff is not what we are experiencing," Hafdahl told the board Tuesday.

Hafdahl's son is in his sixth week of the program, and she said she has not yet heard how he will transition back to his school.

"I was convinced to drop my son off in a dump-off program," she said. "He's not going to benefit for this."

Elisha Hoye, an Agassiz staff member, agreed the program is not ready and more staff is needed.

"The proposal is two to one, four staff for eight kids. It's just not going to cut it," Hoye said. "Today we had nine staff members and two police officers working with one kid. ... We were with this kid for two hours. We were pulled from all the other programs."

Brenda Reuhl, of the North Dakota Child Protection and Advocacy Project, said she feared placing children in a separate facility may be a violation of rights. "Are you stepping into the past and are you stepping into violating the rights of these children?" she said.

One parent who spoke at Tuesday's meeting was in favor of the new school. Cailin Chovkoplyas, said her son, who she thought may never learn to talk, flourished during a year in a similar program in Seattle, Wash. Today, "he is in a classroom with his peers," she said. "I can say with confidence my child would not be there without that one year."

'What is best for all'

Fargo Assistant Superintendent Rachael Agre said while the pilot program is still in very early stages, a special facility or location that is adequately equipped is what is needed for it to succeed.

By this fall at Agassiz, two classrooms will be added to hold eight students in each room. In 2019, six more classrooms are planned to serve up to 64 students from the Fargo and West Fargo districts. Other districts may also partner with the new school and would pay tuition for any student attending.

Students in the school will have an individual treatment plan, including a general classroom teacher as well as assigned mental and behavioral health specialists.

Board members Jim Johnson, Dinah Goldenberg, Linda Boyd, Kristi Ulrich and President Rebecca Knutson voted to fund the cost of remodeling for the new school. Brandi Aune, David Paulson, John Rodenbiker and Jennifer Benson voted against it.

Paulson and Rodenbiker said they could not support the project if parents and staff say the pilot program is not working. However, Boyd and Johnson said the district is not meeting their legal obligation to provide students with the best special services they can.

The rise of behavioral issues has grown beyond the disruption of classes in Fargo and West Fargo. "We've had staff that has been severely hurt, buildings damaged beyond repair," Schatz said. "We're looking at what is best for all of the students. I have just as many parents that call me and say they are sick and tired of their kids having to leave classrooms because of one individual."

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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