Instead of addressing the structural deficits found in their schools, the Fargo Public School District is pursuing of one of the oldest, most expensive, and least effective means of educating students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Such a move incentivizes professional laziness from staff in segregated and regular public schools alike.
Education historians like Robert Osgood wrote that in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, students with behavioral and emotional disabilities were frequently segregated. It did not take much to be isolated from one’s peers and community. All one had to do was generate “contempt among teachers.” Segregated education was promised to be a win-win solution for all involved, with segregated students purportedly being provided a specialized, quality education, while their non-disabled peers could thrive without being “distracted” by “problem students.” Research demonstrated segregated facilities were much more expensive for taxpayers than integrated settings, were poorly run, and provided no educational benefit to enrolled students (many students regressed) and funneled them into poverty as adults.
When students arrived at Agassiz, parents were promised all the same benefits that previous generations were. Staff were unprepared for their arrival and had little idea what to do. Few could say what, if any, education students were being provided. Chaos reigned. Frequent police visits (at taxpayer expense), inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint became the norm, risking the lives of children under their care. Rather than admit the project was a failure and reinvest resources back into the integrated public schools, taxpayers were asked to finance a $4.3 million building remodel for the project. Despite being unable to handle a handful of children, the district wanted the capacity to serve between 40 to 64 children. The district tried to assuage concerned parents they would not try to fill those seats, but even the most trusting person would be hard-pressed to believe those empty seats would not look tantalizing to school administrators in the future.
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The Fargo School Board claimed they are not in compliance with federal law because there is no segregated facility. An ignorant statement such as this would have been hilarious were it not for the fact that a local school board ought to be an authority on education policy. Research would have uncovered since 1975 all branches of the federal government have sought to severely limit the segregation of students with disabilities. States are required to inform the Department of Education how many students with disabilities receive most of their education in the general education classroom and must submit to improvement plans if students are unduly segregated from their peers. In all our years on the North Dakota IDEA Advisory Committee, we cannot recall a single instance where federal authorities were concerned too few students were being segregated from their classmates.
The Department of Education has required each state improve an area of special education, calling this the State Systemic Improvement Plan. As students with emotional disorders had among the highest drop-out rates in the state, DPI is supplying districts resources to help successfully instill a safe environment for all so those students can stay in school and graduate. Solutions include Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. These and other solutions have not been fully implemented. Instead of lying to taxpayers with the hopes of being bailed out for their lack of effort, the Fargo School District should make use of readily available resources.
Matthew McCleary is youth coordinator and Carlotta is executive director of the ND Federation of Families for Childrens' Mental Health. Matthew is also peer support project coordinator and Carlotta is executive director of Mental Health America of North Dakota.