'Zero Reject' School: Last Chance for Toughs

Associated Press

Slightly built, eyes expressionless behind his glasses, 16-year-old "Dusty" saunters into a counselor's office at Lewis and Clark, a South Bronx high school for 120 kids so tough, or unstable, that sometimes even mental hospitals and jails want nothing to do with them.

Martin Young, the school's crisis intervention counselor, a sort of psychological fireman, throws his arm around the youngster and smiles with mock endearment.

"Tell us why they call you Dusty."

"Because I take drugs for a living," replies the boy, grinning sheepishly.

"Are you high now?"

"Yeah."

"On what?"

"Grass."

"Oh, that doesn't count."

To a visitor, Young says, "He's the nicest kid you'd ever want to meet. But he has this chemical dependency."

He gives Dusty a cup of coffee and sends him back to class.

Later, Young and several teachers run to a stairwell where fresh drops of blood stain the floor from a fight between George, a student so violent he once beat his father with a baseball bat, and a smaller boy.

Wanted Shirt

Moments earlier, George had been working peacefully on math problems in teacher Angel Rodriguez's computer room.

But George sometimes loses it. He took a liking to the other boy's shirt and demanded it. When the boy refused, George punched his face.

So goes a day at Lewis and Clark School--where kids play cards in what passes for a library, where not a single child earned a diploma last year. It is one of a special breed of special education schools dealing exclusively with children whose future, often as not, is prison, a mental ward or the streets.

"How should we measure success here?" asked Steve Cohen, principal at Lewis and Clark. "If I move a kid from the point where he's hurting you to where he's only committing white-collar crime, maybe that's success. The measurement for these kids is not reading scores or diplomas."

Some states call them "emotionally disturbed," others say "behavior disordered." Whatever the label, children like Dusty are hardly the poster kids of special education. Often they are regarded as pests or predators--just "bad kids" in need of discipline, not disabled children in need of help.

But disabled they are, as surely as the deaf or the blind, and just as entitled legally to special education.

"We are a zero-reject school. We only take kids no one else will, even kids the corrections department won't," said Sheldon Braaten, principal of the Harrison Secondary School in Minneapolis, whose gates and heavily locked doors make it seem more like a psychiatric ward than a school.

"The hospitals would call us and discharge kids, and the reason was: 'Kid is too dangerous. Needs to return to public school,' " said Paul Hanser, principal of Harper School, where Houston's 98 worst-behaved teen-agers attend classes in a decaying white-brick building called "Six-Shooter High" by some.

The stress of dealing with such youngsters and the frequent lack of administrative support means an annual teacher turnover rate of 50% or more in some programs.

Teachers of the emotionally disturbed last an average of three years, said Braaten, president of the Council for Children with Behavior Disorders.

Tough 12-Year-Old

In 1984-85, public schools employed 32,027 teachers of the emotionally disturbed, 4,322 short of what states needed, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Frances Bartee, a 20-year veteran teacher at Walton Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., recalled an incident with a 12-year-old boy, "a real big guy" on maximum doses of anti-psychotic drugs.

"He had picked himself a girlfriend," she said. "It was a case of first love. She spurned him, and he started pushing her around. It took five of us to restrain him. And I'm only 5-foot-3."

Schools typically provide small classes, psychologists and social workers, meaning costs often exceed $10,000 per child. But getting the funding is often a struggle, even in affluent communities.

"Disturbed youngsters are the most trying, take the most money, and teachers want to get rid of them the most. Physically different kids, like those with cerebral palsy, get more sympathy. They are easiest to program for because everyone wants to give them the bucks," said Marie Bierman, special education coordinator in Greenwich, Conn., where 72 of 1,290 youngsters getting special education are emotionally disturbed.

About 2% of the nation's 39 million schoolchildren are emotionally disturbed, Braaten and other behavior disorder experts believe. But less than 1%--377,000--are getting special education services, according to latest federal figures.

Many wind up in classes for the retarded, are expelled or just drop out, say state officials and teachers around the country.

Small rural districts generally offer fewer services to disturbed children, because of the cost and the few pupils involved. Urban districts, on the other hand, tend to deal with greater numbers of more severely disturbed children.

"If I was growing up in Newark today, I'd be emotionally disturbed too," said Harold Moore, director of special education in that poor, crime-ridden New Jersey city, where 693 of the city's 50,800 schoolchildren are classified as emotionally disturbed.

The help these children get also varies widely from state to state.

In impoverished Mississippi, dead-last in teacher salaries and second to last among the 50 states in what it spends per pupil, just 338 children--0.07% of the school population--receive special education for emotional problems.

"At this point, the philosophy is, no, we're not going to identify thousands of behaviorally disordered children," said Walter Moore, head of special education in Mississippi. "As much as anything, it's a monetary issue. We don't have the dollars to do it." Disturbed kids, he said, often wind up in classes for the retarded.

In 1980, a federal court forced North Carolina to provide educational services to violent children.

One result was the opening in 1986 of the Morgan School in Charlotte, which has received national attention for helping disturbed children gain enough control to go back to mainstream schools.

Varying Definitions

But Morgan remains a bright exception, said Larry King of the Charlotte-based Council for Children: "Morgan is unique in the state, a light at the end of the tunnel. At most places, the question has been control, rather than education."

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia use the federal definition of who is "seriously emotionally disturbed." By that measure, youngsters qualify for special education if they show an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors, or have problems with peers or teachers, display "inappropriate" behavior or feelings, have general depression or unhappiness, or develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

A dozen states add a behavioral definition, making children eligible for special education if they seriously misbehave for an extended time.

Utah adopted a liberal behavioral definition in 1978 because the state wanted to provide special services at an early age. But the state recently tightened requirements as the number of children served surpassed 11,000, or about 3% of the school population.

"It might be questionable on theoretical grounds whether all these kids were handicapped," said state special education chief Steve Kukic, adding that Utah's expansive definition "can encourage teachers to refer children to special education that they don't like."

Delaware, which leads the nation with 3.18% of its students classified as emotionally disturbed, is likewise reconsidering its requirements, said special education chief Carl M. Haltom.

Experts are full of theories about why some youngsters can't behave, and what schools should do about it.

Prof. Carl Smith of Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, told a gathering of special educators in Chicago last spring that behind most misbehavior is ignorance of appropriate behavior, an absence of strong rewards or punishments, or high emotional states.

Some schools use point systems to reward good behavior.

At the Samuel I. Berliner School in Newark, N.J., a "behavior modification program" awards each student up to eight points a day for attending and participating in class. Points can be spent each week in the school store, or accumulated for bigger prizes like jewelry, sneakers or even a TV.

Many schools have "time out" rooms, resembling small cells, where out-of-control youngsters are sent for up to half an hour or until they cool off.

A few schools establish "levels" that students achieve as their behavior improves. Successful students may eventually return to a less restrictive program in a regular public school.

Educators disagree over whether therapy or education should be the prime focus in public schools for the emotionally disturbed.

Some, like Cohen, believe educators should face the fact that schooling for severely disturbed children is secondary, that a diploma is an unrealistic goal. He wants his school to be a "therapeutic" community stressing social skills.

Others argue that a dose of educational basics may be the better therapy.

Education as Therapy

"I believe education is the most powerful therapy there is," said Braaten. "To me the issue is not whether there is some kind of treatment, but that these kids have deficits in social skills. Our objective is not to cure them of an illness, but to allow them to function with a greater sense of personal power."

At Boston's McKinley Vocational High School, the accent is on career skills. "All students spend 50% of their time in academics and 50% in vocational training," said John Verre, who directs the program.

McKinley students get high doses of guidance from social workers and psychologists along with on-site work training. They do maintenance work for other schools that regular city crews never get to.

"The great part about it is our students are getting real work training," said Verre. "When they build a wall, it's a real wall that does somebody some good, that they can be proud of. And we've found that when our carpentry students have gone from McKinley to the regular vocational training program in the city, they've rated as the best carpentry students in that program."

But no one dealing with seriously disturbed youngsters has illusions about the odds of success.

The school psychiatrist at Lewis and Clark recalled a conversation she had with an 8-year-old:

"What do you want to be?" she asked.

"A gangster."

"Why?"

"They kill people."

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