Parents object to transfer of students to Hillsmere

Safety is a concern in adding Phoenix Center students

May 04, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Hillsmere Elementary School parents are fighting part of a plan to revamp how Anne Arundel County educates emotionally disturbed students, saying that shifting more than a dozen into their school would deprive them of the treatment they need and risk their own children's safety.

School officials will meet with the parents Tuesday to discuss the proposed transfer of up to 14 elementary students next fall from the Phoenix Center in Annapolis, which serves 85 to 90 children in grades K-12 with emotional problems.

Parents, who said they learned of the plans from news reports, complained at a meeting Tuesday night that Hillsmere is stretched to its limits and the transfer students will further disrupt the school. Hillsmere, which has about 370 students, already uses a portable classroom.

Lea Hurt, a Hillsmere parent who said her younger sister suffered from bipolar disorder and probably would have been labeled as emotionally disturbed, said it is unfair to remove the students from the Phoenix Center where they are getting the attention they need.

"Pulling 14 children from this all-inclusive environment where everything is geared toward helping them and plopping them in the middle of a school that is currently struggling with space issues, discipline problems and overworked staff will do nothing to help them," she wrote in an e-mail.

Doug Colley, whose two sons attend Hillsmere, said safety is his primary concern. In December, a teacher was injured during an altercation with a boy, who was later transferred to the Phoenix Center.

"The security and safety of our children is more important than his right to be mainstreamed," Colley said.

He was among 50 parents who gathered Tuesday night to strategize how to protest the transfer; nearly half of them attended the county Board of Education's meeting the next morning.

Some parents met again for a work session later that night.

County school officials hope to reassure parents at their meeting Tuesday morning that only students who are ready for the transition will return.

Those students will be in separate classrooms and closely monitored by staff, said Mary Tillar, director of the division of special education.

Students who are classified as emotionally disturbed have trouble learning because problems, such as depression, Tillar said. Not all students act out violently, she said.

Regardless of the outcome at Hillsmere, the issue about where to place emotionally disturbed students is something that needs to be addressed, said Chris Leitch, treasurer of the Hillsmere Parent-Teacher Organization.

She cited the regional program at Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie as a model. Glendale, which has a special wing for emotionally disturbed students, accepts referrals from 25 elementary schools.

"Why doesn't the southern region have the same resources as the north?" Leitch said.

Tillar said an overall plan proposed by the county would address that balance by creating five regional programs similar to the one at Glendale, serving schools that feed into Annapolis, Arundel, North County, Old Mill and South River high schools.

The proposal follows a citation from the state Department of Education that the county was too quick to shuffle the kids to a special school. Several of the transfer students originally came from Hillsmere, Tillar said, so it made sense to consider returning them to that environment.

Transfer students would be evaluated individually to make sure they are ready to return to a transitional environment, Tillar said. That may mean that some of the 14 transfer students might remain at the Phoenix Center.

The county is seeking $1.7 million for the overhauled system, which would pay for more staff at the Phoenix Center, which would be able to handle between 30 to 50 more severely disturbed children, who are attending classes at private facilities, such as the Hannah More School in Reisterstown. About 250 county children are at such private facilities.

The funding also would help pay for more staff at Hillsmere to handle the transfer students.

The plan would include a full-time assistant principal, four special education teachers, a crisis technician, a part-time school psychologist and a licensed social worker for 1.5 days a week, according to a letter sent home to parents.

"County school officials are "not going to make any move unless they have the support staff," Tillar said.

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