In studying how to best serve students with severe behavioral, mental health needs, regional task force weighs pros and cons

West Fargo Superintendent Beth Slette, center, brainstorms in a break-out group comprised of elementary teacher Fran Lee, Officer Todd Pearson, social worker Margit Schmelka and parent Erick Esping during a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 20, at the Center for Scouting in Fargo. The group is part of a larger regional task force created to find the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with behavioral and mental health needs. Kim Hyatt/ Forum

FARGO – What is the best education model and location for students in Fargo, West Fargo and surrounding school districts with severe behavioral and mental health needs?

A regional task force is close to answering this pressing question that will set the course for how and where these students should learn and what services are needed. On Tuesday, Nov, 20, at John L. Wanzek Center for Scouting, dozens of administrators, teachers, parents and social workers forming the 60-member task force met for what was supposed to be the last meeting.

But the slate of five meetings beginning Sept. 27 wasn't enough for the task force to wrap up discussions of how the districts should proceed with plans for this group of students. The goal is to deliver recommendations to school boards by Nov. 30, but the timeline is changing to accommodate at least one other meeting, the date of which is to be determined.

Outcomes are focused on identifying the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students with severe behavioral and mental health needs. This means that students qualifying for special programming should spend as much time as possible with peers in the traditional classroom.

Former West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers has been leading the task force meetings, and on Tuesday he gave the group seven configurations to consider for these students. Options ranged from special programming in a students' home school and configurations expanded to programs being housed within a district building or potentially detached. Other configurations included programming within a school addition or wing, to remodeling or building a new facility to house the program. These options could serve one district or multiple districts depending on the delivery model, staffing and space.

"We know not every model is going to fit every student," Flowers said.

Task force members noted that all the options have a cost associated with it, as well as challenges with transportation. In seeking the least restrictive environment, students' transition to traditional settings is critical and another challenge for many of the configurations that involve a site away from the students' home school.

Jessica Thomasson, Lutheran Social Services director and task force member, said that a separate school or alternative learning environment makes the idea of reintegration harder to achieve. She said she struggles with thinking a new facility for these students is a "temporary spot."

A concern shared by many in the group is the stigma of these students being sent to a different school and being segregated from peers. One parent suggested that this attitude stop permeating because potential configurations are about giving students what they need from trained staff who care about seeing them achieve.

What the task force is also considering is whether programming should be provided by each school individually or approached with district-wide programming at a centralized site. There is also the option of having a regional center that would serve students from multiple districts travelling as far as 40 miles for services.

District- or region-wide programming increases opportunities for specialized facilities and collaboration among staff and resources in the community. If multiple districts are involved, each can share in cost and potentially form a separate leadership structure.

But many parents and advocates oppose a separate location. In fact, Fargo and West Fargo were going to create this type of programming at Fargo's Agassiz School earlier this year, but plans were derailed by parents' concerns and, instead, a task force was formed to dig deeper into issues and effective approaches.