FARGO — A major piece of the research is in.

In an effort to address the growing problem of students with severe behavioral or mental health problems in the Fargo and West Fargo school districts, a 50-member task force was formed and its report was presented Tuesday , Jan. 22, to a joint meeting of school boards from the two school systems.

What emerged from the study were three top alternatives for developing a special program and "space" for the small slice of students in the districts that would be affected, according to the 30-page report presented to the boards by former Fargo and West Fargo superintendent David Flowers.

The issue has been of concern as classes have been interrupted and entire schools affected in some instances. Some of the students that could be considered for the special programming would be those exhibiting complex behaviors such as violence or be identified as emotionally disturbed or on the autism spectrum.

"It's a tough topic, it's a tough issue," Flowers said.

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The top choice of the group, although there wasn't a clear consensus, was to have a special program at a regional center that wasn't attached to a current district building.

A few of the advantages to such a facility, said the report, was that it could be used by other school districts to help share costs, a truly specialized environment could be developed, it could be a place where children would belong and could be a long-term home for kids who learn differently.

Disadvantages are that it could duplicate existing regional programs, provide a stigma that is hard to overcome and segregate students with disabilities from their peers.

However, Flowers said that the task force made it clear and it was "a concern if not a fear that they didn't want to create a life sentence for children" in any of the alternatives.

It was also made clear that any placement of a student would involve school officials working closely with parents with a knowledge of the child's background and individual needs.

What the diverse task force also wanted to see as the No. 1 goal was to address the academic, social and emotional needs of each child and monitor progress so they could return to a less restrictive environment.

In fact, the name of the task force was the "Least Restrictive Environment-Behavior Task Force."

The other two top alternative plans as voted on and ranked by the task force were a special program within the district attached to an existing school or a regional center with part of the programming contracted with an outside mental health or behavioral agency.

Flowers said that other main elements the group wanted to see in any program or facility was a safe, calm, welcoming environment and a mental health-based curriculum that supported social and emotional learning.

Also the task force suggested that the program be adequately staffed with trained and competent staff and administrators and that the districts take advantage of specialists in the community.

Of course, the financing is a concern and Flowers pointed out that the school board members probably know that more than others.

"The boards will have to weigh that very, very carefully on what would this cost and is it sustainable," Flowers said.

If funding becomes a problems, the task force also offered an alternative that garnered some strong support by the task force. That option would be to not create a more restrictive environment, but rather work on planning and delivering current programming more effectively.

Currently the Fargo district has a special program for middle school students with a higher level of behavioral problems but nothing for elementary students.

There had been plans last spring to create a small elementary school for students with severe behavioral needs in the Agassiz facility in south-central Fargo, but concerns from staff and parents drew that to a halt and the task force was formed in September.

Flowers said the task force had six meetings over a three-month period since that time to develop and research plans.

After the meeting, Fargo School Board President Rebecca Knutson said the task force provided that much needed research and that a lot more discussion and perhaps joint meetings with West Fargo lie ahead.

She also said a recently completed task force report on special education and an upcoming task force on buildings and usage will eventually tie into any final decision.

Task force members included teachers, behavior interventionists, parents, social workers, principals, administrators, legislators and psychiatry and behavioral health specialists.