Exceptional Children Need A Special Place

School Offers Structured Life For The Disturbed Student

May 19, 1991|By DIANNE WILLIAMS HAYES

RIDGELY — Across the Bay Bridge, three miles outside this small Caroline County town, 750 acres on what locals call the plains are set aside for emotionally disturbed students whom school systems can no longer handle.

They are children traumatized or abandoned at birth, suicidal, overly withdrawn or outwardly aggressive. Some suffer from the side effects of drug and alcohol use by their mothers during pregnancy.

Anne Arundel County's relationship with the school goes back nearly 20 years. At $24,000, Benedictine offers one of the lowest annual tuitions for residential placement in the state.

In all, 125 students are educated and housed behind the stone entrance of the Benedictine School for Exceptional Children. Run by the Sisters of Benedictine, the school accepts for residential placement boys and girls who doctors believe can still be educated.

Fifteen-year-old Rosemary is among 22 students from Anne Arundel County enrolled in the non-sectarian school. Dressed in her uniform -- plaid skirt, yellow blouse and blue necktie -- she attends classes from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

At first glance, a visitor may wonder why she has been a student here since the fourth grade. She is coherent and articulate.

But at home, Rosemary has had difficulty handling her emotions and has displayed aggressive behavior. That problem rarely arises at Benedictine, however. Students are monitored closely and receive individual and group counseling. They are allowed little idle time.

When the school day ends, Rosemary heads for Emmanuel Hall, a dormitory located in a wing opposite her classrooms. She and nine dorm mates stand in front of thelong row of wooden closets and change into play clothes.

The green-eyed student with short brown hair meticulously folds back her bedspread, then waits to be called so she can retrieve her laundry. Thereare no maids at Benedictine. Each dorm takes turns sorting and distributing laundry for the entire school.

With colorful paper kites hanging overhead and dolls scattered around the room, the girls await their assignments. Dorm supervisor Debbie Derby has them organize their dresser drawers. Later, she'll be around to make sure everyone is showered and in bed by 10 p.m.

Derby also will set the nighttime door alarms, to make sure no one enters or leaves.

Rosemary stops to look at a picture of herself. On top of the dresser sits a gift from her mother. She shakes it and glitter disperses in water around a colorful unicorn. It is a reminder of love and home -- and, ironically, the place where she exhibited the unmanageable destructive and aggressive behavior that sent her here.

Rosemary admits to becoming emotionally untracked on occasion. "Sometimes I get off the side of thetrain and get upset," Rosemary says. "Now I'm getting older, and I can handle my upsets. Every five weeks we go home, and my insides say I want to go, but my outsides say I don't."

As much as she looks forward to the visits, Rosemary is apprehensive about returning home, away from the structured environment of Benedictine. She appears rather easy-going and comfortable with direct eye contact.

"I get upset if I can't handle a problem or have my own way. I start crying, screaming and hollering and kicking. I have to let it out. In school, I have nice Mrs. (Linda) Smith who helps me."

The school's rigid structure and counseling from the staff are usually enough to keep students like Rosemary on track. But if all else fails, there's the thickly padded chamber they call the "Quiet Room," under the supervision ofcrisis counselor Dave Slama.

"I've got files on each student who goes in," he says. "A lot of times, (they're put in the room) just tohave them away from stimulus when they are out of control. Some kidswill settle down in 15 minutes, others take hours."

Inside the room, green padded walls and thick carpeting prevent students from hurting themselves. Slama sees to it that lights and exhaust fans stay on and that students are watched constantly.

Forty students have visited the room this year. But not Rosemary.

"I know about it," shesays, "but I haven't been in it. I know it's clean and a person sitsin there to get your anger out."

Wearing a Max Headroom T-shirt and gray jeans, Rosemary prepares for the evening activity. Today, students will be divided into five softball teams -- an exercise designed not only to be fun but also as a lesson in organization and confidence building.

"I hope I do OK with softball," she says, fiddling with her fingers. "It's my first time."

Supervisor Elwood Roy makessure each student is chosen for a team. Half-way through the process, Rosemary is selected for the green team.

Unfortunately, the selection process takes so long that the game has to be put off for another day.

The calm Rosemary displays at school can be attributed tothe rigid schedules and counseling, says Sister Jeannette Murray, who heads Benedictine. The 128 staff members, including full- and part-timers, provide almost a 1:1 student-teacher ratio.

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