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Agassiz Woodrow Wilson High School marquis Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Special elementary school planned for students with severe behavioral problems would be first of its kind in ND

WEST FARGO—The Fargo and West Fargo public school districts plan to join forces to create a small unified school specially designed to help kindergarten and elementary-age students with severe behavioral problems.

If the plan comes together for next fall, it will be the first such school in North Dakota.

School districts around the country are seeing an increase in student behavioral problems that often disrupt classrooms and sometimes lead to staff injuries.

While there are available off-site programs locally for middle school and high school students, none are designed to help students in grades six and below.

Fargo and West Fargo are planning a $4 million joint effort to build an addition to Fargo's Agassiz School to eventually serve about 64 such students in those grades, though it would start next fall by serving just 16 students in grades five and below. It would concentrate behavioral health services to help students learn to cope and return to elementary schools.

Beth Slette, a West Fargo schools assistant superintendent who in July will become the next superintendent, said the area has seen an increase in the frequency and severity of students with significant behavioral and mental health needs, and it's starting at younger and younger ages. Even troubled kindergartners have at times required schools to go into lockdown.

The behavioral issues can tax district resources. While some schools have containment rooms in which students can calm down during an episode, those rooms are often full and some students require two full-time adults to help them each day.

"It's important to remember if these students really could regulate themselves, they would," Slette said.

While the students who may qualify for the separate school do not have cognitive disabilities, they are identified as emotionally disturbed or on the Autism Spectrum Disorder due to their behavior.

"It's not the label that necessarily gets you there, but the behaviors," said West Fargo Business Manager Mark Lemer.

The rise of behavioral issues has grown beyond the disruption of classes. West Fargo has seen an increase in staff injuries due to student behavior.

Reports of staff injuries nearly doubled between December 2015, when 68 reports were filed, and December 2017, when 125 reports were filed.

A program at Agassiz School is already in place for Fargo elementary students, serving less than 10 kids, said Fargo Associate Superintendent Robert Grosz.

West Fargo, which has no such elementary program, currently has about 15-20 students that would immediately benefit from the program, Slette said.

Students selected to attend the school would be placed on an individual treatment plan that would include a general classroom teacher as well as meetings with mental and behavioral health specialists.

Fargo Assistant Superintendent Rachael Agre said the school would have about eight students per classroom, with each class having one general education teacher.

Eventually, students outside the Fargo-West Fargo districts could potentially attend the school.

"We certainly know there are needs in other districts as well," Agre said.

The West Fargo School Board voted to partner with Fargo on the program at its meeting Monday, April 23. West Fargo will contribute $250,000 each year for four years to remodel Agassiz for the specialized school. Lemer said the funds will be used from the district's building fund.

The Fargo School Board is expected to vote on the project at an upcoming meeting.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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