Progress Is Made, But What Of The Future?

School Helps Emotionally Disturbed Prepare For Return To Society

May 21, 1991|By Dianne Williams Hayes

Before the school day ends, William Haroth will have quieted a swearing student standing before him, praised another for a day without trouble and helped teachers lift a third, kicking and screaming, off the floor.

This is only a small part of his world as principal of Phoenix Annapolis, one of three special education centers in the countywhere students with serious emotional problems can learn to work through them while continuing their studies.

Another student takes his usual seat at a small table in the corner of Haroth's office, patiently waiting for a chance to explain his behavior in class. But when the principal leaves his office, the student takes over the schoolwide intercom and sings for a minute before getting caught.

"The kids we have here are very complex," Haroth says. "While there are only 80 at any given time, we may have 800 different problems to address. Sometimes it gets draining."

Haroth's mild manner and sense of humor makes him a master at his job -- a sortof combination principal, father, counselor, confidant and friend.

"It's a people business," he says. "We're not making widgets. When widgets go amiss, the boss can stop the line; here we can't always fix things right away."

Haroth was among the designers of the Phoenix Center schools, which since 1975 have gathered seriously emotionally disturbed students together in centers adjacent to Annapolis and Glendale elementary schools and on the grounds of Crownsville State Hospital. Before they were established, those students were grouped together at Crownsville State Hospital or were not served at all.

Haroth, who was a teacher at Crownsville, smiles as he speaks of the students in kindergarten through 12th grade in his well-structured program far removed from those earlier days. Daily report cards are sent home with students, detailing their behavior and progress.

The students at Phoenix Annapolis have been sent here because of a history of aggressive behavior -- such as stabbing a classmate with a pair of scissors or exhibiting extreme suicidal tendencies. The few elementary-age students have had long, uncontrollable crying outbursts or tempertantrums.

State Board of Education spokesman Larry Chamblin remembers the struggle to reorganize Maryland's special education system in the early 1970s.

"Many of the students who are in school now never showed up before," Chamblin says. "They were kept at home; other cases were shunned aside."

Haroth is thankful for a place to educate students who once may have had no place in the school system.

"Back then, children could be voluntarily committed to Crownsville withno hearing," Haroth says. "They now have civil-rights safeguards. Then, the stay was indefinite. It was a sentence at a hospital that once you got in, you could stay and get lost. These students are now served in the county."

At Phoenix, many students return to their homeschools after a stay of six months to a year; others are mainstreamed on a part-time basis after spending years at the school and learning to modify their behavior.

But at least six students each year must be referred to costly out-of-county residential programs -- boarding schools for children whose mental or physical handicaps prevent them from attending school in Anne Arundel County or the nearby area.

Haroth's mood changes when he admits that the student who took overthe school intercom system is among those to be recommended for residential placement.

"We're pretty tenacious," Haroth says. "We don't give up easily. If, after time, it's proven that we can't meet the student's needs or the student is detrimental to others, then we haveto break down and recommend residential placement."

Much progress

Few would argue that special education in Anne Arundel County hasimproved greatly in the last 16 years. But where does the county go from here?

As parents gain a better understanding of special education issues -- in part through the Board of Education's Parent-Educator Resource Center at the Carver Staff Development offices in Crofton-- more demands will be placed on the county.

The county school system is responsible for handicapped students from birth to age 21. During that time, they are nurtured and educated. But until two years ago, that commitment ended when they were handed over to social service agencies for placement in either sheltered work settings away fromthe public or medical day-care programs.

Today, the commitment tomainstreaming, part of the popular "least restrictive environment" philosophy, is increasing the amount of time disabled students associate with their peers. Parents are learning that their dreams of independence for their children are not as fanciful as once believed.

Job coaches throughout the county are training students once thought incapable of holding a job. Even students who are illiterate or possesslimited verbal skills, but have the use of their limbs, are being trained.

Progress, for both the school system and its students, has been steady.

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