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Disturbed students won't be sent to Stevens Forest


The Howard County school board rejected last night a proposal to split the county's program for seriously emotionally disturbed students between Stevens Forest and Waterloo elementary schools.

Instead, the board, in a 3-2 decision, adopted a plan that limits the Waterloo program to 20 students and keeps its special education staff intact. The rest of the students will be sent to the Cedar Lane School for physically and mentally disabled students.

"I believe that putting this program at Stevens Forest is like putting a square peg in a round hole, and I'm not willing to do that," said board member Stephen Bounds.

Although board members insisted that their decision was unaffected by the public outcry, parents at Stevens Forest had strongly objected to the proposal to put half of the program at their school, arguing that the facility does not have suitable closed classrooms, and there was not enough time to train the staff and teachers.

Waterloo parents, meanwhile, long have sought to have the program's size reduced at their school because, they said, the large numbers of students sometimes overwhelmed the staff and disrupted other classes.

The board's redistricting decision on special education was one of several it made last night as it completed the adjusting boundary lines for next academic year.

Also last night, the board redistricted more than 550 middle school students in the Ellicott City and Elkridge areas, sending 421 from Ellicott Mills Middle School to Elkridge Landing Middle School, which opens in the Fall; 123 from Mayfield Woods Middle School to Ellicott Mills, and 15 from Mayfield Woods to Elkridge Landing.

Boundary lines are adjusted almost every year by the school system to adapt to the increasing student enrollment and the opening of new schools. An additional 11,000 students are expected by 2004, increasing the system's overall enrollment to 47,000.

The board did not look at redistricting at the high school level this year, preferring to wait for the opening of two new secondary schools in 1996.

In the decision on the seriously emotionally disturbed program, the board approved an alternative plan that had been created by school administrators only in the past two weeks.

This plan -- labeled a one-year interim proposal -- defers placing the program at Stevens Forest at least for the coming year and "perhaps permanently."

Although the Waterloo program will be limited to 20 students, it appears likely that Waterloo will house the entire program for next year because school officials project that the program's total enrollment only will be between 11 and 15 students. The program had been as large as the 34 students it had last year, but declined to 19 this year.

If, however, more students are added to the program next year and the limit is exceeded, a new classroom would be set up at Cedar Lane.

In the long term, the new elementary school in Fulton scheduled to open in 1997 will be a second site for the program, providing officials with the flexibility they had sought to achieve by sending half of the program to Stevens Forest. Intensive staff development will be provided for all of the county's teachers to encourage more neighborhood schools to keep their students who otherwise would be sent to the seriously emotionally disturbed program.

While all five board members expressed concern about sending students to Cedar Lane if Waterloo's program is full, only two -- Susan Cook and Linda Johnston -- said that possibility was worse than the alternative of sending students to Stevens Forest.

Students in the seriously emotionally disturbed program initially are taught in self-contained classrooms and gradually are reintegrated back into regular classes, but Cedar Lane -- unlike Stevens Forest and Waterloo -- does not have such classes.

"I agree that the space at Stevens Forest is not ideal," said Ms. Cook, the board's chairwoman. "But putting students in isolation at Cedar Lane is detrimental to the program, and I cannot support it."

Mr. Bounds argued that Cedar Lane would not likely be used because the program's size has decreased during the past two years as more neighborhood schools are making an effort to accommodate the students. He predicted that the program's size will remain smaller than 20 as the inclusion of special education students continues to be successful.

Also last night, the board:

* Approved a new policy governing the use of school facilities. Among other things, the new policy requires that all community groups pay a small fee to use schools for meetings and other activities.

* Heard a revised report on proposals to strengthen the gifted-talented program for elementary schools next fall. The changes will be implemented for grade two in all elementary schools and for second through fifth grades in six pilot schools.

* Received revised policies on students' rights and responsibilities and the requirements for participation in curricular and non-curricular activities during nonschool hours. Public hearings on both policies are scheduled for the board's April 27 meeting, and the board will vote on them May 11.

* Received an update on how students, parents and teachers are being informed about the new high school technology magnet program scheduled to begin next fall.

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