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Howard County Times
Howard County

Parents and staff push for more transparency, support at Howard County Public Schools’ emotional disabilities programs

Throughout last fall, parents and teachers at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City reported scenes of chaos unfolding in hallways that resulted in staff injuries and a series of unofficial lockdowns.

A Maryland Public Information Act request filed by Triadelphia Ridge parent Angela Graboski and released Dec. 13 sought all records and correspondence pertaining to the school’s regional program for students with emotional disabilities since July 1, 2020. The request returned dozens of emails between Howard County Public Schools administrators, Triadelphia Ridge teachers and school board members, discussing a wide range of issues stemming from the program.

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“It’s very clear that the program is not being run efficiently,” said parent Catherine Loomis, who taught in a behavioral program for four years in Baltimore County public schools.

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Thirteen months after Howard County Public Schools officials banned seclusion — the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room — in all schools, parents, teachers and stakeholders say the county is not adequately equipping staff with training and guidance on how to handle students experiencing behavioral crises.

In a Sept. 9 email to the Howard County Board of Education, Triadelphia Ridge art teacher Michell Schalik reported seeing “students in extreme crisis daily” and said that the school was struggling to maintain a safe learning environment.

“My administration has given us specific modified hallway lockdown procedures for such [extreme behavior] events,” Schalik wrote to Executive Director of Program Innovation and Student Well-Being Caroline Walker on Sept. 27. “I assumed it would be only in an emergency, yet these are common and frequent since we do not have many other tools to swiftly handle a crisis.”

Ellicott City resident Barb Krupiarz, whose son attended Mount Hebron High School’s emotional disabilities regional program and graduated in 2018, has advocated for years to broaden special education offerings within HCPSS and says the school system needs to take a more proactive approach when it comes to helping students with complex behavioral and emotional needs.

“The best thing you can do is train [teachers] so that they can avoid the behaviors in the first place,” said Krupiarz, who served as deputy director of the Maryland Office of Education Accountability from 2018 to 2020. “That just doesn’t happen in Howard County.”

The county operates 10 regional programs for nearly 100 students with emotional disabilities across all school levels. Students in the programs may spend time in general education classrooms or in their own separate spaces, depending on their individualized education program, or IEP, a customized set of learning goals.

Former Board of Education Chair Vicky Cutroneo says schools that implement new regional programs have suffered from a lack of adequate staffing and training as the county grapples with new statewide policies on behavioral interventions.

“There’s pressure to be successful,” said Cutroneo, whose term on the school board ended in December. “What’s happening is that we’re responding to these situations that we can’t necessarily handle with what we have in place.

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“I feel for these students who are publicly having these horrible meltdowns,” she added. “Clearly we’re not meeting their needs and we’re impacting the overall educational experience of every student in that school.”

While working as a student assistant in the emotional disabilities program at Triadelphia Ridge, Vonnice Felder said she injured her ankle twice last year while intervening in fights.

“They put you in situations where I feel like they’re setting you up to fail,” said Felder, who began working at the school during the 2020-2021 school year and was terminated Nov. 21 after what she described as weeks of tension with the administration when she resumed her duties despite her injuries.

Loomis, Graboski and several other parents at the elementary school created a petition that called for increased transparency from the school and say they’re still dissatisfied with the school system’s response.

HCPSS executive director of special education Terri Savage and Community Superintendent Patrick Saunderson, who oversees HCPSS Area 1 including Triadelphia Ridge, said they could not speak to specific aspects of the program at that elementary school due to privacy concerns. Triadelphia Ridge administrators declined to be interviewed for this story.

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Finding alternatives to seclusion and restraint

In November 2021, the Howard Board of Education banned seclusion in all county schools. In April 2022, the Maryland General Assembly outlawed the practice in public schools, while also limiting the use of physical restraint, defined as “a personal restriction that immobilizes a student” or reduces their ability to move freely.

Advocacy groups such as the Maryland-based Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint argue that rather than effectively disciplining students, these practices can lead to significant trauma and injuries, while also impacting students of color and individuals with special needs at disproportionate rates.

Sixty-five of the 108 students physically restrained during the 2021-2022 school year in Howard County were Black, according to data submitted by the school system to the Maryland State Department of Education, despite Black students making up about 24% of the school system’s population. Students with disabilities accounted for 87% of all restraint incidents and the majority of those restrained were ages 5-10.

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One trauma-informed alternative to physical restraint employed by HCPSS is Ukeru, a method of blocking students experiencing crises using cushioned, shield-like devices. A pilot program evaluation presented in June 2022 showed Ukeru to be effective in reducing the use of restraint and implementation began at all non-high school regional programs in fall 2022.

“Instead of putting your hands on a kid, you can use these mats and pads [...] to keep a kid from hurting themselves or use them to keep a kid from hurting you if you’re the staff member,” said Ellicott City resident Jeannie-Marie Leoutsakos, who leads a community workgroup on restraint and seclusion.

Calls for transparency, reform

Cutroneo says it’s critical to maintain the school system’s regional programs to help one of the county’s most vulnerable student populations, but said additional support and better communication with parents is needed.

“The fact that we’re not being transparent and collaborative with the community when these programs come to schools is also a disservice,” Cutroneo added. “It sets everybody up for failure, to be honest, and for suspicion.”

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In addition to increased transparency, Triadelphia Ridge petition organizers are calling for staff at longer-tenured programs, such as the one at Waterloo Elementary, to mentor staff and to further expand Ukeru training to help with deescalation in hallways.

Schalik and others have also advocated to expand the county’s Gateway Program to the elementary level. Operating out of the Homewood Center, Gateway provides alternative education for middle and high school students.

“Regional ED teams work so hard, but they need your help,” Schalik testified to the school board on Oct. 20. “With resources like Homewood, elementary students in trauma could receive the mental health care they desperately need.”

Leoutsakos says regional program staff are overburdened because they must cater to students with a wide range of needs; 42 of 94 students in the program as of July 1, had IEP diagnoses other than emotional disabilities, including autism, developmental delay and intellectual disabilities.

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“They’re really a catch-all program,” Leoutsakos said. “It’s a place where Howard County sends kids that have behavior that they don’t understand.”


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