Howard County school officials met with residents last night to explain why they want to build a school for troubled youth behind the Department of Education building in Ellicott City, a plan that alarms some people in the surrounding neighborhoods.
During a sometimes tense meeting, some residents said the school should not be built in a residential area because they believe it would pose a threat to safety.
But others spoke about the need for a new building and said existing programs it would house help students.
By meeting's end, neither side seemed to have changed opinions.
"I think that the message is clear -- that as a site, smack dab in the middle of a residential area, it's simply not appropriate," said Terry McAndrews, who lives in Gaither Hunt, a new subdivision behind the proposed site.
School administrators have recommended that the Alternative Learning Center be built on school system property near the Department of Education building off Route 108. The land is bordered by the Gaither Hunt, Gaither Farm Estates and Manor Lane neighborhoods.
Three programs would use the building:
Gateway, which serves students with behavior problems and is housed in an old building on Route 108 across from River Hill Village Center.
Bridges, for students with emotional problems, which is using a Baltimore County building.
Passages, a new program aiming to help students released from detention centers make the transition back to regular school.
McAndrews said residents plan to bring a petition outlining safety concerns to a March 9 public hearing on the proposal.
The board plans to vote on the issue March 23. The center is slated to open next year, with space for 230 students.
Supporters of the center last night included a woman who has a son in the Gateway School.
Karen Colpo of Ellicott City said the program helped her son improve his grades from failing to a 3.2 grade point average.
"They have a no-nonsense, no-fooling structure at Gateway," Colpo said. "Until and unless you see this school, you can't understand. These kids are no different than any of yours. These are kids in your neighborhoods."
Randy Meyers of Gaither Hunt asked if school administrators considered swapping the school-owned land for land in rural or commercial areas.
Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent of finance and operations, said that had not been done, although officials "informally" discussed it with the county.
Other residents who oppose the proposed site asked why officials wanted to combine three programs in one building.
Craig Cummings, alternative education programs administrator, said Gateway serves some students who would qualify for the other programs. "Those kids are all together right now," he said.
McAndrews and other residents also asked about security.
Frank Eastham, principal of Gateway, said the center is to have 76 staff members -- or one employee for every three students.
A school resource officer and security officer will be on staff, officials added.