FARGO - Finding staff to handle intense classroom situations and adequate space to reduce stress and anxiety are some of the many challenges facing a recently formed regional task force charged with recommending solutions for educating students with severe behavioral and mental health needs.
After the Fargo and West Fargo school districts stalled on creating a separate school at Fargo's Agassiz School for students with these severe needs earlier this year, the districts decided to analyze what other schools are doing for students and staff.
Due to increased frequency of injuries among students and staff and more law enforcement being called to schools - thereby disrupting instructional time - districts here are grappling with how to serve all students in a safe environment.
Tuesday, Oct. 16, marked the second in a series of five meetings in which the 50-member task force made up of teachers, administrators, legislators, advocates and parents came together to brainstorm. The goal is to make recommendations to deliver to school boards by about Nov. 30.
Schools with special education programming for qualifying students to be place out of a traditional school setting are referred to as Level D in North Dakota and Level 4 in Minnesota. In North Dakota, it's referred to as "Least Restrictive Environment," giving students individualized objectives beyond academics and aiming to transition students back into the regular classroom.
Josh Nelson, director of Lakes Country Academy in the Minnesota communities of Fergus Falls, Alexandria and Moorhead, said his Level 4 program serves 34 school districts and 14 private schools. For the 85 students currently placed in the specialized school, there are 125 employees, including counselors, psychologists, social workers therapists and teachers.
The academy tries to reduce these issues with de-stressing activities and checking in with students at the beginning and end of each day for specific behavior and academic objectives outlined in a specialized plan.
Some of the biggest takeaways from Nelson's experience is how crucial square footage per student is, as well as continuous professional development and training for staff.
Retired West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers, who is leading the task force meetings, said schools in and around Fargo are looking at a "potential" Level D setting. Fargo and West Fargo districts could then revisit plans for Agassiz School.
The task force will recommend the best location for the Level D school, which was opposed by many parents and advocates concerned that the approach was segregating students.
Nelson said one of the challenges his staff have dealt with in Fergus Falls is "overcoming the stigma of 'institutionalizing kids.'"
While most districts do well at educating 85 percent of students, Nelson said there is that 15 percent - many dealing with trauma or other intense, violent behaviors - that need more help.
"I lay awake at night thinking about that 15 percent," Nelson said.
As part of Tuesday's meeting, another expert in schools created for students with severe behavioral and mental health needs shared her experience. Val Rae Boe, manager of Karner Blue Education Center in Circle Pines, Minn., said her program is for students with autism and other disorders and disabilities.
Boe said the goal is to get students to self-regulate and achieve success so they can transition back into a traditional classroom. She said the center is a "healing learning environment."
Whether adjusting the acoustics or lighting in a classroom, or creating spacious entrances and hallways to reduce anxiety, she said the school does a lot to have a welcoming place "where students feel at home."
She said there is also a special emergency entrance and exit for students experiencing a mental health crisis. This maintains dignity of the students and reduces stress for the entire school that would normally be subjected to the crisis. Instead, Boe said "the student comes back the next day and nobody knows the difference... It helps to preserve everybody's emotional health."
The next task force meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at Jon L. Wanzek Center for Scouting, 4200 19th Ave S, Fargo.