City Schools Will Integrate Emotionally Disabled Students 

The Richmond School Board is moving emotionally disabled children into specially designed wings of two existing mainstream schools, and at least one School Board member isn't happy about it.

The School Board is closing 13 Acres and REAL schools for students with special emotional needs, moving the 32 students to Clark Springs Elementary and Henderson Middle schools. The closures are part of a broader school-closing plan adopted by the board last week.

"I was stunned that they could be so blind — especially after the [Virginia] Tech tragedy," says School Board Member Carol Wolf, who proposed combining the program, expanding it to include high school students, and moving it to Maymont Elementary School. Maymont is currently slated to be combined with Clark Springs.

Children identified within the school system as emotionally disabled are typically classified through professional testing that, in turn, triggers federally mandated educational guarantees that must be met by the school system. Emotionally disabled students are sometimes violent and emotionally disruptive. Currently, most ED students re-enter the general school population upon reaching high school.

"We're going to go with the opinions of our experts," says School Board Chairman George Braxton, citing recommendations from Harley Tomey, the district's director of exceptional education, as well as classroom educators. "We're going to trust we can provide an environment that can be beneficial to those students."

At both Henderson and Clark Springs, plans call for separate entrances and other modifications to the facilities to maintain distance between the emotionally disabled students and the general population. Some facilities will be shared.

"I've seen research and articles that speak very highly about having [emotionally disabled] students in a more mainstream environment," Braxton says, referring to the prevailing educational theory that special-needs students perform better when integrated with the general student population.

But Wolf says Braxton and other board members miss the bigger issue by not moving to consolidate and expand the program to make slots for high-school students: "We are creating violent offenders who aren't getting the services they need and deserve," she says. "We are not meeting these kids' needs this way."

Wolf cites statistics from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health that, among other things, show that 80 percent of children with mental-health issues do not receive proper services.

Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Kimberly O'Donnell concurs with Wolf.

"I think it would be safe to say that we as a community are in need of more resources to help kids that are emotionally disturbed," says O'Donnell. "Most of the children who appear before our court have significant emotional and academic challenges." Most high-school-aged offenders aren't provided services, she says.

Though disagreeing with Wolf's assertion that the School Board erred in its decision on 13 Acres and REAL, School Board Member Kim Bridges agrees that there may be a need to expand the program for emotionally disabled students to include those in high school.

"I'm absolutely happy to continue the discussions about this because I don't know what happens to those children after they leave that program," Bridges says. "I know the ideal is they get the services they need and then they go back into the community." S

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