Leaders from five agencies that serve at-risk children in Louisville say the Jefferson County school district isn’t doing enough to ensure there are ample employees to keep students and staff safe at their schools.
Maryhurst, St. Joseph Children’s Home, Boys and Girls Haven, Home of the Innocents and Uspiritus (Brooklawn and Bellewood campuses) all treat children with emotional and behavioral disorders, many of whom are wards of the state or have had traumatic life experiences or unstable homes.
The agencies also host schools at their residential facilities to educate the students who are part of the public school system.
JCPS supplies these “agency schools” with teachers, but the facilities are managed separately from the district and are mostly funded by the state. Now, in the wake of budget shortfalls, the agencies have asked JCPS to pay for some employees they can no longer afford.
The employees they need are trained and authorized to restrain students who may pose a danger to themselves or others. The employees also support JCPS teachers in classrooms and throughout the facilities. There are currently 40 such employees working in the five schools and leaders of the agencies want JCPS to pay for them.
JCPS officials say the district will only support 10 new positions, and they would be teachers’ aides with crisis training. The district says that will be adequate.
Superintendent Donna Hargens says the district is responsible only for paying for the education of the students, not the other employees of these facilities. Further, she says JCPS has always met its obligations to provide the appropriate number of teachers, aides, transportation and other academic related resources in these schools.
But to the agencies, these positions are crucial to ensure education can happen in a safe environment.
“Ultimately it’s [the district’s] responsibility to make sure the kids are educated. The only way they can be educated is if they’re safe first. We’re providing the safety, they’re providing the education,” says Mary-Kate O’Leary, president and CEO of Uspiritus.
Last Friday, agency leaders accepted the JCPS offer but they still say they’re concerned it won’t be enough to keep students and staff safe.
Each school negotiated separately. Brooklawn will get five aides, Maryhurst will get three, St. Joseph’s Children’s Home and Boys and Girls Haven will each get one, Bellewood and Home of the Innocents will get none.
The group initially asked JCPS to pay 50 percent of the $1.4 million needed to cover 40 trained employees for the first year, with an agreement that the district would eventually cover all of the costs.
Under this proposal, the agencies would continue paying for other operational costs related to the schools, including utilities and non-education related resources. JCPS denied those requests.
Instead, the district looked at students’ Individual Educational Plans—which lay out what kind of supports each student needs—and decided how many aides would adequately serve each school. This is the same way JCPS provides additional resources and staff for students with IEPs in district-run alternative and traditional schools, says spokeswoman Christi Linear-Robinson.
But O’Leary and others say district administrators don’t fully understand the needs of the students who attend agency schools.
“[Hargens’] Administration feels that they can serve the kids like any other alternative school that they have,” says Uspiritus CEO Mary-Kate O’Leary. “They truly haven’t seen, or been in our programs enough to see the behaviors of what our kids can demonstrate.”
“The teachers are worried and with good reason.”
Pam Cotton, executive director of St. Joseph Children’s Home, says her school’s staff may respond to as many as five aggressive student incidents a day. If the number of trained employees drops, she says students and teachers could be at risk.
Under the JCPS offer, St. Joseph will get one new aide. The school asked JCPS to pay nearly $150,000 for the four aides it currently employs, says Cotton. JCPS teachers working in St. Joseph’s say they are concerned for their safety, she says.
“The teachers are worried and with good reason.”
There are already about 30 JCPS-funded teachers’ aides working in classrooms at the five agencies, but they aren’t responsible for using physical restraints or intervening in behavioral issues that occur, says Michelle Sandborn, executive director of the Children’s Alliance, a group that acts as the collective voice for agencies across the state.
Under the proposal, Sanborn says those 10 new aides hired would take over the responsibilities of staff trained to deal with behavioral issues. Trained staff is responsible for everything from physical restraints to monitoring students going to lunch, and it’s not clear whether the new JCPS hires would take over these responsibilities, she says.
These positions don’t require any specific certification or degree and officials say they’re paid between $25,000 and $34,000 depending on experience. They also aren’t mandated by the state to be in the schools. but Sanborn says they offer the needed amount of hands to support student learning and maintain a safe environment in the schools.
“No one’s asked them [agencies] to take on this level of staffing. They’ve done it because they feel like that’s the best thing for children,” says Sanborn.
Brooklawn—which serves middle and high school students—had 286 restraints last year, says O’Leary. Most included aggressive student behaviors and a majority resulted in varying degrees of staff injuries, she says.
O’Leary says they have 17 staff members trained in behavioral interventions. As part of the offer, JCPS says it will provide Brooklawn with five teachers’ aides.
“We feel that it’s going to be dangerous,” says O’Leary, who adds Brooklawn has around 130 kids.
Maryhurst—which has capacity for 68 students—has 10 trained employees on staff, says chief executive officer Judy Lambeth. JCPS has offered three new aides.
Who pays for what
Agency schools receive money from the state’s Department of Community Based Services. The programs are responsible for paying for the cost of room and board and any treatment associated with a specific child’s needs.
Sanborn says agency costs across the state have gone up for everything from the social services provided to utilities, and there is nearly $15 million in additional costs that
Kentucky agencies have incurred that the state can’t fund.
She says the most obvious place where schools look for savings are the areas they’re not mandated to provide, such as trained staff that assists public school teachers. But this would be a difficult cut, she says. Sanborn commends the schools and JCPS teachers for the work they do and says the schools have many success stories that prove their worth.
Superintendent Hargens says JCPS receives around $8 million in state funding (SEEK and KECSAC funds) for its agency schools and spends $2 million of its own money for additional resources.
Each of the five schools has decided to honor individual agreements or offers made by JCPS, which Sanborn believes is just the beginning. Whether the number of teachers’ aides being added is adequate has yet to be determined by those working inside the classrooms, but none of the agency leaders say it’s likely to be sufficient.
Agency heads plan to meet separately with Hargens and her staff to discuss individual transition plans that will tentatively take place over the next month.
R.G. Dunlop with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this report.