Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Schools debate how best to educate children with emotional

One parent pushes to have her child moved to a special-needs class
where learning can be tailored to her problems

Looking for the best solution

Schools debate how best to educate children with emotional
disabilities while complying with the law.

The Kansas City Star

At age 7, Holly O'Neal tries to fit in with the other kids during
recess at Underwood Elementary School in Lee's Summit. She is bipolar
and has a reactive attachment disorder. She now spends 60 percent of
her school time in special classes.

Mrs. O'Neal?


Holly's school, Underwood Elementary in Lee's Summit, is on the line
with an idea.

Meet-the-Teacher night is Monday. Given Holly's emotional
difficulties, how about instead of bringing Holly to Meet-the-Teacher
night, Holly's new second-grade teacher would love to have some one-
on-one time at their home, say, on Tuesday?

Time was when Kim O'Neal might have considered the offer thoughtful.
But at 37, having helped raise at least 16 foster kids and adopted
five, she keeps her suspicion meter well-tuned.

"I guess they don't want my kid there," she said after the
call. "Probably afraid Holly'll throw a desk and scare the parents."

Tuesday arrives, Aug. 22, one day before school starts. She's
watching Mrs. Sauve, an affable middle-aged teacher as light and thin
as a spindle, sit on her carpet and read "Alice the Fairy" with a 7-
year-old who, Kim's convinced, "could knock her on her butt in a

Debbie Sauve has no clue Kim's annoyed. She just wants Holly to feel
comfortable, to get to know her new teacher before the year starts.

One thought keeps coursing through Kim's head:

Lad y, you have no idea what you're getting into.


Educating children with severe emotional disturbances is a national
problem, vexing teachers, districts and parents.

In 1975, Congress enacted a law that would eventually become IDEA,
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring states to
provide disabled students with "free appropriate public education" in
the "least restrictive environment."

The law has been a boon. Six million disabled students each year are
given IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) that qualify them for
special services, education classes, programs, technologies, social
workers, even personal paraprofessional helpers.

But conflict in the mental-health world centers on those not helped.

The U.S. Department of Education says 1 percent of children in
school, about 800,000, are severely disturbed emotionally or
mentally. But the U.S. surgeon general and repeated epidemiological
studies say 5 percent, or 4 million children, is a conservative
estimate, leaving 3.2 million unaccounted.

"Where are the rest of them? They are in regular classes in school,
not getting the help they need, and causing a lot of difficulties,"
said James M. Kauffman, professor emeritus of education at the
University of Virginia and a leading authority on education and
mental illness.

"The typical kid in special ed has been known to be emotionally
disturbed for years," he said, "maybe five or six years. Most are not
caught early. Schools are loath to identify mental illness. Part of
it is cost. Serving four to five times the number of kids we serve
now means you would have to spend four to five times more money, and
hire four to five times as many special ed teachers."

That's money most cash-strapped school districts can ill afford. Nor
are they kids schools want, experts say.

"It's not like we have people standing in line to have these kids in
their classrooms," said Rich Simpson, a researcher and professor of
special education at the University of Kansas. "These are kids who
spit and kick and cuss. They are the most neglected and the most
poorly looked-after in the school system. They have the fewest

Their educational fate, he said, is often bleak. "Unfortunately, they
either drop out or are incarcerated or they sort of vanish," he said.

Kim doesn't want that for Holly. For months, she has struggled to
convince school officials that putting Holly in an all-day regular
classroom with 19 kids would be disastrous for everyone. She wants
Holly to be taught in a special class with her own IEP.

But IDEA calls for disabled children to be taught in the "least
restrictive environment" for numerous reasons. One is the belief that
kids do better when taught alongside their peers and treated like
everyone else.

Also: "We want to make sure we're not putting kids into special
classrooms that don't need to be there," said Jerry Keimig, the Lee's
Summit School District's director of special services. "ED
(emotionally disturbed) is a powerful label to put on a kid."

Money, he said, is not a factor in deciding the best way to teach
emotionally disturbed children. In the last decade, the district —
like others locally and many nationally — has expanded services in
response to a problem that is deepening more than it is growing, he

"The numbers aren't the issue as much as the severity," Keimig
said. "They are much more severe. They have multiple diagnoses.
Families are not becoming more functional, families and communities
are becoming less functional. They bring all those issues to school."

In response, each of the district's 1,200 teachers is now required to
go through Behavioral Intervention Support Team (BIST) training to
learn how to calm kids before and when they fly out of control.
Besides its special education classes, the district also has less
restrictive alternatives: "buddy rooms" for overwrought kids to take
a breather; "focus rooms" where kids can spend much or most of the
day with specially trained teachers before returning to their regular

The result, he said, is that fewer students, from 158 in 2000 to 110
now, are deemed emotionally disturbed. Nor are they put in special
education classes which Keimig said should be "a last resort."

Other districts are similar, hiring social workers and behavioral
specialists, running individual and group counseling sessions.
Earlier this year, the Hickman Mills School District teamed with
Spofford to help identify kids with mental and emotional issues long
before they erupt and to work with families to help keep their kids
on track. The Kansas City, Kan., School District joined with the
Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare and began the
Wyandot Academy, a school just for children with severe emotional


Kim is worried. With Mrs. Sauve on the floor, Holly is happy.
Everything about her, her smile, her eyes, her bushy hair, her
energy, seems exaggerated, electric.

"You know, Holly," Mrs. Sauve says, "if you read books, you can go
anywhere you want."

Kim holds her tongue.

"Mrs. Sauve is in denial," she'd say later. "They think if they give
them TLC and love in the classroom, it will be OK. This is a mental-
health issue."

Holly's IQ is barely 90. Her math and reading are at pre-kindergarten
levels. "She can recognize about half of her kindergarten sight
words," Kim says. "After that, it's guessing."

She is bipolar and, because of it, takes lithium and Risperdal. She
has a reactive attachment disorder, born of severe neglect as an

In a healthy attachment cycle, infants discover, for example, that if
they cry out of hunger or discomfort their needs are taken care of.
They attach to other humans with a sense of trust and safety. But,
the theory goes, if those needs go unmet or answered with blows,
infants can view the world as unsafe. Instead of trust, they develop
rage. They fight for their survival.

"She slapped a teacher last year," Kim says of Holly. "She's thrown
desks. She swings her backpack and hits people, punches people. Any
slight thing can send her into a tantrum — getting ready for school,
brushing her hair."

Just days ago, Holly returned home after three-months at Spofford,
where doctors altered her medications and she was taught control.

It helped. When she entered Spofford in May, she erupted daily and
often, as she did the day a dorm-mate got a new hairdo. Holly flung
herself to the floor, pounded her hands and feet on the carpet,
screaming, "I'm ugly!" because, she said, the other girl looked

Her fits have reduced. Spofford therapists now treat Holly at home.
But Kim and her husband, Rick, are still worried.

Their experience with severely emotionally disturbed kids runs deep.

The couple (Kim works for the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption
Association; Rick is a carpet layer) took in their first foster
child, Mark, when their own kids, Kimmy, now 18, and Ricky, 16, were
still in grade school.

After Mark, whom they eventually adopted, came 15 other kids, many
emotionally disturbed.

The O'Neals got Holly in 2000 at 15 months old and officially adopted
her two years later, along with her sisters, Brittney, now age 6, and
Jamie, 14. Brittney has a mood disorder. Jamie, who suffered the
longest and most abuse, has been living in residential treatment
centers for the last four years.

"I want to prevent that as much as possible for Holly," Kim says.

She's not saying that getting Holly into a special class is going to
solve all her daughter's problems, or even the tiniest fraction. But
for her the lessons are more fundamental: following directions,
understanding consequences, controlling her behavior enough to stay
in school.

Holly may seem fine in this moment with Mrs. Sauve, with all the
attention trained on her. But Kim has little doubt what will happen
in a class of 19.

"I give it one week before Holly does something big," Kim says after
Mrs. Sauve leaves.

But Kim is wrong.

It takes two weeks.

Holly O'Neal is now in a special class.

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