Residents of three Ellicott City neighborhoods are alarmed about a proposal to build a school for troubled youths on property bordering their homes, a move they say would be dangerous.
They don't believe a residential area is appropriate for the Alternative Learning Center, a school that officials have recommended be built behind the Department of Education building off Route 108, an area surrounded by the neighborhoods of Gaither Hunt, Gaither Farm Estates and Manor Lane. The proposed site is owned by the school system.
Three programs are slated to use the building:
Gateway, which serves students with behavior problems and is now housed in an old building on Route 108 across from the River Hill village center.
Bridges, for students with emotional problems, which is temporarily using a Baltimore County building.
Passages, a new program aiming to help students released from detention centers make the transition back to regular school.
School officials sent letters last week notifying residents of the proposal. A public hearing is scheduled for March 9, and the school board plans to vote on the issue March 23.
The center is slated to open next year, with space for 230 students.
Gaither Hunt is a new, upscale neighborhood with some houses priced at more than half a million dollars. But residents there said their concern is safety, not property values.
"We don't want potential predators in the neighborhood," said Terry McAndrews, an attorney who moved into the development a year ago and was one of the first residents.
McAndrews helped organize a neighborhood meeting Thursdaynight to discuss concerns and plan strategies. More than 60 residents attended from Gaither Hunt, Gaither Farm Estates and Manor Lane, he said.
McAndrews said they plan to attend public meetings about the proposal "en masse" and will contact people living in nearby neighborhoods for support. They also plan to register complaints with school and community leaders.
By the end of last week, residents had begun a Web site, www.neighborsunited.rr.nu.
"Nobody that we know of at this point is in favor of this proposal," McAndrews said of area residents. "According to the proposal's own language, it will serve the most violent students, students recently returned from detention centers, students who abuse drugs and alcohol, students who make physical threats, and students who consistently leave the school premises. And that's our greatest concern."
School administrators, who recommended the Department of Education site at a school board meeting Feb. 10, said they also considered four other sites but decided they wouldn't work. Three were too small or had other problems, and one site was owned by the state, which declined to release it.
Craig Cummings, the alternative education programs administrator, said the Alternative Learning Center won't pose a safety threat to the community.
The two existing programs, Gateway and Bridges, are already "in essentially residential areas," he said.
"There's no history of any problems, as far as the kids attending the school going into the community and causing problems," he said. "There really isn't any opportunity for them to leave the campus and go into the neighborhood."
Students at the center would be bused in and supervised at all times, Cummings said.
"I'm not anticipating that there will be any problems," he said. "If people are upset about the idea, I encourage them to make appointments to visit the [existing] schools and see what they're like."
School officials will meet with residents Feb. 29 to talk about the proposal. The officials hope that will allay residents' fears.
"This school is a critical need," school board Chairman Sandra H. French said. "We have one group of students riding all the way up to [Baltimore County], and Gateway is just a very aging facility. I believe as adults, we have to come together and say, `These are our children; we have a moral responsibility to educate them and nurture them so they become responsible citizens' -- rather than reject them."
Patty Bent, a Gaither Hunt resident, said she understands that the school needs to be built. But she thinks it ought to be put in a commercial area.
"My problem is, it doesn't belong in my back yard," she said. "This is a community of multiple kids."