FARGO — Despite outcry from some parents, Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi is continuing with plans to create a "Level D" school for area students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.

However, what the school would look like is still vague.

The district is exploring partnerships and potential locations for the Level D setting, Gandhi told The Forum. It's still uncertain if the new setting would be a standalone building or part of an existing school. However, the setting would likely be near a traditional school, if not placed inside, Gandhi said.

The superintendent intends this fall to make a presentation to the school board, which must approve the plan.

The setting has become a highly debated topic in the Fargo area as some teachers say behavior issues are at an all-time high, especially because of an increase in students with special needs. Many parents say there's a lack of training for teachers dealing with students with disabilities, and that schools don’t always follow a student’s Individual Education Program, the legal document that outlines things such as academic goals, accommodations and de-escalation tactics.

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There is currently no separate setting for elementary students with more extreme behaviors in the area. Students with disabilities, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and emotional disturbance disorders, are generally educated alongside peers without such disabilities.

Task force recommendations

In January 2018, Fargo began a pilot version of the Level D program in the Agassiz School, which also houses Woodrow Wilson High School. But parents soon spoke out against the pilot program, criticizing the lack of support, training and resources.

In May 2018, despite testimony from a dozen parents and community members, who opposed the setting, the Fargo School Board voted 5-4 to approve about $4.3 million to remodel Agassiz School into a Level D setting facility for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The West Fargo School District planned to send students there and contribute funding.

Fargo and West Fargo had plans to add six more classrooms to the pilot program in 2019, serving up to 64 students from both districts. However, West Fargo's school board voted against funding the facility, saying they did not have enough information to move forward in the partnership.

Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi says he supports creating a school setting for young students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The district previously had such a setting in a pilot program at Agassiz School in south Fargo. Forum file photo
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi says he supports creating a school setting for young students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The district previously had such a setting in a pilot program at Agassiz School in south Fargo. Forum file photo

In July 2018, a video surfaced of a 9-year-old student in the Level D pilot program who was forced into a room at Agassiz and pinned down by a Fargo police officer and a school official. The student's mother, Victoria Johnson, has said the episode traumatized her son.

Shortly after the video surfaced, Fargo canceled the pilot program. However, during the summer, school board members continued to discuss establishing a permanent Level D program at Agassiz.

Fargo then formed a 50-member task force made up of teachers, administrators, legislators, advocates and parents to recommend the best setting for such a program.

In January 2019, the task force reported the top choice for the program would be a regional center that wasn't attached to a current building, although there wasn’t a clear consensus. The task force emphasized the importance of trained staff and temporary placement in the setting.

Superintendent Gandhi is now weighing the suggestions from the task force, but says he fully supports adding the Level D setting to Fargo Public Schools. West Fargo has not indicated whether it plans to join the developments moving forward.

What does Level D mean?

Students with disabilities should generally be educated in a general education class, according to federal law. However, students can be placed in other classroom settings depending on the severity of their needs and behavior.

Federal law mandates that students be educated in the least restrictive environment, or alongside general education peers as much as possible. Students can be placed in special classes or separate schools only if their disability prevents them from learning in general education classrooms, even with additional aids.

Classroom placement for students with disabilities ranges from Level A to Level H, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal legislation that mandates education rights for students with disabilities.

Students placed in Level A settings spend at least 80% of their time in a traditional classroom. This category includes the majority of special education students. Level C students are educated in general education classrooms less than 40% of the day and otherwise are educated in classrooms with other students with disabilities.

Level D students are educated in separate schools with other peers with disabilities.

How are students placed in Level D?

Federal law lists 13 disability categories under which students, ages 3 to 21, are eligible for special education services, including emotional and behavioral disorders, physical and cognitive impairments, ADHD, and students on the autism spectrum. Students with disabilities each have an Individual Education Program, or IEP, that outlines things like a student's strengths, challenges and accommodations.

The IEP also outlines a student's classroom placement level.

In Fargo, a team of special and regular classroom teachers, counselors and parents would decide whether a child should attend the Level D school, according to national procedure.

Parents could express their concerns about the Level D placement, but ultimately, parents could be overruled by staff, Gandhi said.

The Level D setting would be a temporary placement for students, according to the district. A student could transition back into the general education setting if instructors believe the child has made progress in the Level D setting. The setting would have a more soothing atmosphere and additional specialized staff, according to the district.

Community backlash

Many parents and community members have spoken out against the Level D setting at school board meetings.

Parents worry such a school would stigmatize students. Others say the school would be a “dumping ground” for students without a clear plan of how to transition them back into their home schools and that the setting would negatively affect students' learning and development.

Some parents say restraint and seclusion tactics are being used throughout the Fargo district and worry they could be employed more often in the new setting.

Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or ebeyer@forumcomm.com.