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Continued: Mentally troubled students overwhelm schools

  • Article by: JEFFREY MEITRODT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 21, 2013 - 7:26 AM

Gianni was charged with assault, but the case was dropped months later when he was found mentally incompetent, county records show.

The incident “scared me to my core,” Shameka said. She decided to pull him from public school and enroll him in a residential treatment center, where he could undergo psychotherapy daily and be monitored 24 hours a day. She wanted her son “somewhere he could be safe.”

She was finalizing arrangements when police came to question Gianni again. They wanted to know whether he was the person seen trying to start a fire in a vacant garage. Once again, he confessed.

Gianni was immediately placed at St. Joseph’s Home for Children, which charged $2,000 a month for his long-term treatment. The costs were covered by Shameka’s insurance from her $30-an-hour job as a hospital X-ray technician.

But Gianni’s yearlong stay at St. Joe’s took a heavy toll. Constant visits with her son made Shameka late for work so often that she was fired. Three years later, she still hasn’t been able to find full-time employment.

She now depends on public programs for Gianni’s treatment.


Changing directions

Schools are not equipped to deal with students like Gianni, superintendents say.

Ten years ago, a child with his mental and behavioral history might have been put in a group home with other mentally ill children and attended a day-treatment program for academic instruction and mental health services.

But in an attempt to keep children out of pricey treatment centers and hospitals, Minnesota changed directions in the past decade, pouring millions of dollars into early-intervention programs while cutting funding for longer-term care. The state now serves twice as many children as 10 years ago — 55,000 in 2010, but spending per child is down 47 percent.

“The average age of the children we’re serving has been going down,” said Chuck Johnson, deputy commissioner for policy and operations at the state Department of Human Services. “We’re getting ahead of the problems earlier.”

But, some top educators say, the state did not account for the needs of students with more serious mental problems. Those children now sometimes have no place to go for help when they break down, turning schools across Minnesota into de facto treatment centers.

The number of beds at residential treatment centers in the state has fallen 27 percent in the past decade. Counties also have cut funding for day-treatment care by 55 percent since 2007.

“When I came here, Minnesota had a reputation as one of the best places to go if you needed mental health services,” said Dr. Carrie Borchardt, who has been working as a child psychiatrist in Minnesota since 1983 and with Gianni since he was 9. “And I don’t think that’s true anymore. We are providing much less.”

Schools, which once referred difficult cases to expensive day-treatment programs, have also scaled back. Canvas Health stopped getting referrals from six suburban districts in recent years, Kuppe said.

Lifespan, another day-treatment provider, was cut by several of the state’s largest school districts — including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin — after years of treating their students.

Liz Keenan, special education director in St. Paul, acknowledged that her district can’t provide the same treatment children receive at Lifespan, which typically provides three hours of individual and group counseling per day. St. Paul paid Lifespan about $2,500 per month for each student.

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  • Gianni, who has a history of psychosis, often slips into a fantasy world, talking to himself and battling imaginary enemies.

  • Three weeks after Gianni set the fire at school, Shameka told her mother that he would have to stay in juvenile detention until a judge determined whether he was mentally competent to face arson charges.

  • While incarcerated, Gianni wrote this letter to a county prosecutor, saying “i’m a really good kid” who sometimes does things that are “extreamly wrong.” He asked to go home with his mother because “I am always safe at home.”

  • Gianni’s relatives welcomed him home May 23 after he spent 37 days in juvenile detention.

  • More than three weeks after his 15th birthday, Gianni was finally able to have fun with a family party at Water Park of America.

  • Gianni retreated to his bedroom to escape the noisy party held the night he was released from jail.

  • Alone in his back yard, Gianni battled imaginary foes while relatives inside the house celebrated his homecoming.

  • After a judge kept Gianni in jail, Shameka Griffin arrived home about the time her son usually got off the school van.

  • Shameka walked with Gianni into the Anoka County courthouse for a hearing on her son’s mental competence.

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