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'Zero Reject' School: Last Chance for Toughs

November 15, 1987|CHRISTOPHER CONNELL and LEE MITGANG | 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.

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