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DCS issues may force new bus route
Jul 08, 2005 12:00 am
July 6, 2005
The practice of mainstreaming children in state custody into public schools along with a demand from the Department of Children Services the Wilson County School System meet a 24-hour placement deadline has local officials considering a move that could hit tax payers in the wallet.
Wilson County Schools Director Jim Duncan said he is considering a $22,000 per year plan to transport students in state custody to area schools on a dedicated bus route because of ongoing disciplinary problems on buses involving state wards.
Yet, Duncan and other school administrators say the busing problem is only one facet of a school system with limited budget resources dealing with often troubled children in state custody under state government and federal court guidelines.
Duncan and others insist the 24-hour deadline for placing these children in county schools can run counter to their own best interests as well as those of other students. The 24-hour mandate is problematic in that disciplinary, educational and health records are not delivered in a timely manner by DCS to the school system.
Administrators insist they cannot make informed decisions about the placement of state custody students - many from other counties - because they literally have no background information.
"We are the local public school system," Duncan said. "We should have every right to make placement decisions in the best interest of the system and student."
The Fallout from 'Brian A.'
The philosophy of DCS has changed in recent years when it comes to educating children in state custody, including those in Wilson County.
Children should be in the "least restrictive" environment possible, according to DCS. The philosophy is dictated in part by what is known as the Brian A. Settlement Agreement, the result of a federal lawsuit brought against the State of Tennessee for its DCS program, including the department's approach toward educating children.
A DCS spokesperson said the department's approach is now to "mainstream" students in state custody into classroom's with peers outside the state system.
"The least restrictive educational environment is mainstreaming these children," DCS Director of Communications Rob Johnson said. "Before these kids were educated at their contract school, but now our overall goal is to have more kids mainstreamed."
During academic year 2004-2005, over 50 children assigned by the court to the Wilson County Youth Ranch on Benders Ferry Road were integrated into West Wilson Middle and Wilson Central High School. The ranch operates as a foster facility under the guidelines of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. It is also one of the most popular charitable causes in the county.
The Youth Ranch is a non profit organization dedicated to providing treatment and rehabilitation to youths 13 - 18 years old assigned there by the court system.
Students who reside at the main campus are mostly Level II residents, some of whom are delinquent in some manner, having committed misdemeanors or who have emotional or behavior problems, according to Youth Ranch Director Ron Smith. He said the ranch doesn't accept children who have committed a violent act within the last six months,
and no youth who have committed assault or rape.
"We have a wide variety of children, many of whom are just dependent and victims of neglect," he noted.
The Ranch also serves children at "residential" homes in Mt. Juliet and Lebanon. Many of the children assigned there are categorized as Level I, in state custody but deemed to have not "serious" medical or behavior needs. Level III children require the most intensive supervision and are not mainstreamed into the Wilson County school system.
Suspended Right Off the Bus
However, the mainstreaming approach from the 2001 Brian A. Settlement Agreement has educators at a disadvantage according to local officials, because student records are not delivered by DCS as quickly as enrollment is demanded by the agency.
According to Duncan and Wilson Central High School Principal Larry Kernagis, DCS came to system officials last year to clarify the system needed to place these students in classes within 24 hours of being placed in the Youth Ranch.
Smith said this procedure was already in place but the system balked because records were not coming with the students. He added recent attention focused on the Brian A. lawsuit put the need to immediately serve these students' educational needs in "perspective" for DCS officials.
"DCS is trying to become more efficient now," Smith said. "They are trying to get these kids' needs met. They may have fallen short in the past and they are trying now to fix it."
Duncan said he is frustrated because these children initially come to the system without any education or health records. Duncan said last year school officials often were not given in a timely manner the authority or means to evaluate these children to determine where best they should be placed after the state ordered enrollment.
The newly enforced policies are also forcing other changes in the local system.
Several documented cases of disruptive behavior by some of these children on the school bus have prompted the director to propose an exclusive bus route-at a cost of about $22,000-to transport them to and from their court appointed residence.
"We are required by law to accept every student the Youth Ranch has," Duncan said. "We ended up with 60 plus children from there in our school system, many of them not originally from this county. We don't have a choice."
Previously, children assigned to the Youth Ranch were educated by a Wilson County School System assigned teacher. Even prior to the DCS mainstream mandate, Duncan pulled the teacher.
"We got away from that," Duncan said. "I didn't feel we had the support we needed from the ranch. I would have favored staying with that system but it wasn't fair to make a teacher go out there without a
support system and possibly at risk."
Wilson Central High School principal Larry Kernagis said last year was a nightmare when it came to what he felt were children "literally" dropped off at his school without so much as a grade report.
"Things got very difficult when DCS officials came to us and said our trying to evaluate these children before we mainstreamed them into our classrooms was not in keeping with the doctrine of a least restrictive alternative," Kernagis said. "We have many documented cases where these children came to us without sufficient information to indicate their needs and health situation. We also have documentation of disruptive disciplinary problems that put other students and administration at risk."
Kernagis said there were "multiple suspensions" of Ranch students.
"We've had kids before that never set foot in the school and were suspended for behavior right off the bus," Kernagis said. "Of course we want to help them, but I can't help them until I know where they were last enrolled, what credits they gave, any behavior problems. Those records are vital."
Duncan said the law requires after the state appoints a child to the Youth Ranch they must be enrolled in the public school system within 24 hours, even without records. The Ranch has the responsibility to process the students and provide educational records, Duncan said. However, the records first come from DCS.
A New System
Johnson said his agency is now under "a new system" that will hopefully within 24 hours of student enrollment get the "ball rolling" in providing these essential records.
"There is a gap in providing school records," he said. "Unfortunately it happens, but under law they (school systems) can't deny enrollment for lack of records."
Johnson explained some schools are quicker to provide school records to process.
"You just can't hold a kid out of school because of no records," he said. "If a child doesn't have his records, the administration there needs to go to them and ask them. DCS is working hard to streamline this more."
The system does not treat Ranch students "any differently than any other child," and students "across the board have discipline problems, "according to Duncan. However, the lack of prompt records on these children last year prompted Duncan to instruct school officials this year to immediately contact the Ranch and request a "liaison" when a state custody student arrives.
"We will also call MAP and talk to the director there," he said. "And we will demand we get those records before we place them in the classroom. Both DCS and the Ranch have an obligation and responsibility to this school system."
Johnson said in addition to changes to facilitate faster the procurement of school records, his agency will work with the children in a team setting that includes school, DCS, Youth Ranch and MAP officials to determine what is the most effective and least restrictive educational placement of these children.
Kernagis said until things improve he will place state custody children in the "most appropriate" place until the records come. He also suggested the school board implement special zoning where such large numbers of state custody children cannot come to his school at once.
"I can't deal with so many numbers," he said. "You begin to develop a negative subculture and then the marginal kids are sucked in. More kids with more problems are being put at our doorstep and I want to help them but I need the resources to deal with them. I won't put our student body at risk."
Smith agrees with Kernagis and Duncan, saying more local decisions on placement are a better system. Yet, Smith also said it is better to deal with disciplinary problems now than down the road in these children adult lives.
"Before the order came down from DCS, it was us and the school system who made the evaluation as to how to best educate these kids," Smith said. "Now it comes from DCS and the state. I would rather have our organization and the school make that decision on a child to child basis.
"Yes, we do have some discipline problems," he said. "But we have to deal with these children sooner or later. Better now. We try to be a positive in this community."