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Continued: Rising special ed cases are huge cost to Minnesota schools

And making it anywhere on time is never an issue.

“There is no such thing as being late here,” said Jayme Bennett, Orion’s teacher.

Since starting this fall, Orion’s outbursts have shrunk to one minor incident per week, Bennett said.
“It’s almost a 180-degee turn,” said Setchell, whose arms are no longer covered with bruises, and her face is clear of the scratches she used to frequently receive from her son. “He likes to go to school again.”

Building silos

Orion’s education isn’t cheap. Each of the 40 students in his program costs about $70,000 per year, more than three times the average special ed student in the state. Altogether 250 staff members, including teachers, therapists and social workers, work with the school’s 450 students.
It’s a similar story at the other special districts serving the Twin Cities. These so-called intermediate districts have some of the highest average student costs in the state.

Together, the three districts served more than 3,600 students with special needs last year, including nearly 2,000 students sent there because their disabilities were causing disruptive or unsafe behavior in traditional districts. Their home districts foot the bill.

The three intermediate districts have been on a building boom, spending about $90 million on new facilities in the past five years.

Orion’s school is one of four new centers in the metro area designed for special education students. District 287 also opened the South Education Center in Richfield, while Intermediate District 916 is building a school in Blaine.

To win public support for these new schools, administrators have stressed the dangers of remaining in aging schools designed for traditional instruction. They say older facilities have contributed to a rise in staff injuries and assaults because it’s harder to find the right space to calm agitated students who may be suffering from severe mental problems, including schizophrenia and paranoia.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have a student in a full-blown mental health crisis, where an ambulance needs to be called,” said Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of District 287. “That student may be taken to a hospital and be back in school the next day.”

The new schools offer few if any mainstreaming opportunities. Most students typically spend their entire day with other disabled children.

Dan Naidicz, special education director for District 916, predicted that half the elementary students in the district’s most intensive programs will never make it back to a regular classroom.

“We’re getting many kids now who in the past were in restrictive residential treatment center programs or even hospital programs,” Naidicz said. “They’re in our schools now.”

A different approach

Building elaborate centers exclusively for disabled students is a source of controversy among parents and educators, who worry about the long-term effects of segregating students with special needs.

“We’d be very concerned about building a brand-new facility with super-specialized classrooms and materials and everything,” said Matt Mohs, the St. Paul school official. “That may be going too far.”

As Mohs sees it, too many school districts have begun treating special education students as potential troublemakers who must be isolated for the safety of themselves and their teachers. He calls it the “criminal justice” approach to special education. He said St. Paul was guilty of it, too.

About 18 months ago, Mohs found out that just 30 percent of the district’s 240 students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders were spending any part of their day in a regular classroom. He was disturbed, especially when he noticed that the group was largely made up of African-American boys who were often suspended for misbehaving.

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