Speaking out against school for severely disruptive youths

Ellicott City neighbors say building center near homes is safety hazard

March 10, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Using Howard County Board of Education reports as evidence, Ellicott City residents spoke out last night against a plan to build a school for troubled youths in their back yards.

Education officials recommended last month that the Alternative Learning Center for severely disruptive youths be built on school system property near the Department of Education building off Route 108 in Ellicott City.

The board wants to build the school to house three special-education programs that are now in separate locations, including other counties. The preferred site is bordered by the Gaither Hunt, Gaither Farm Estates and Manor Lane neighborhoods.

Since the site was recommended, residents have researched the three programs that would be housed in the school and determined that it should not be built in a residential area because of safety concerns.

The programs that would use the building are Gateway, which serves students with behavior problems; Bridges, for students with emotional problems; and Passages, a new program that aims to help students released from detention centers make the transition back to regular school.

Last night, Randy Meyers, a resident, told the board that, at first, he was not concerned about the school being so close to his home. But then he read a school board report that characterized some of the youths as "the most violent students" who "typically make threats, abuse drugs and alcohol and have outbursts of physical behavior."

Mary Christ fought back tears as she told the board of her fears that one of the youths in the program might wander into a neighborhood with children in it.

Christ said that the board's report describing the program was alarming, especially a line that said the students "constantly leave school premises."

"Your report says our fears are justified," Christ said.

Some residents said that putting the students in an area opposed to them being there would not be in the children's best interest.

"They are being penalized by being inserted into a community where their presence may neither be welcomed nor freely accepted, only suspected," said James Broady, a resident.

More than 30 people spoke at last night's public hearing and many said that having the programs in one building could prove dangerous.

"By your own architect's design, you have gone to great pains to make sure these three populations never come together," said Judy Koloski, representing the Gaither Farm community. "Why? Because of the volatility."

Others said that the school and an access road would destroy the open space many residents said was the reason they moved to the area.

They accused the board of hasty decision making and poor planning, and for failing to consult with the families who live near the proposed school. They asked the board to consider building the school in an industrial park.

"It's clear that the Board of Education has done only a limited investigation of alternative sites," said Vico Baer, a resident. "I don't believe that the Howard County school system really believes in being a good neighbor."

Almost all speakers agreed that programs for disruptive, struggling and emotionally needy children are necessary and welcome in the county -- just not near their own children.

But former PTA Council President Wanda Hurt, who lives in Columbia and has a son in the Bridges program, disagreed, arguing that the children who would use the center are "our own children."

"I am the mother of one of these horrible, awful children," Hurt said sarcastically.

She said that her son's program is in a residential area and there has not been a problem because the children are under constant supervision.

"That's why it's very disturbing to me to hear [concerns] about this being in a residential area," Hurt said. "These are our children and they belong in Howard County."

Also last night, Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin said the school board offered the Howard County Education Association a 5 percent raise for teachers, including step increases.

"Now [union officials] have to take it back to their constituent group for ratification," Cousin said.

He said he couldn't comment further about any details of the offer that was made yesterday because negotiations are continuing.

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