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Baesler talks about special ed facilities, state troopers in schools

Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota superintendant of public instruction, speaks Thursday, June 14, 2018, at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce Public Policy committee meeting in Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO – A recent decision by the Fargo and West Fargo school districts to put the brakes on plans to create an elementary-level special education facility was a good call, North Dakota’s superintendent of schools said Thursday, June 14.

Also, having state Highway Patrol troopers do routine paperwork in rural schools, particularly in the western half of North Dakota, is catching on as a no-cost way to provide more security in places where police response time is much longer than in urban centers like Fargo or West Fargo, Kirsten Baesler said.

Baesler, who spoke Thursday to the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s public policy committee, met last week with officials from Fargo and West Fargo schools and the state Department of Human Services to discuss the special education issue.

“I’m very happy that West Fargo and Fargo have chosen to pause this for a bit, create some more opportunities for community input, and make sure … all perspectives are being looked at and considered,” Baesler said. “These decisions are local decisions. I’m not sure the state will ever push for” such facilities.

The Department of Public Instruction will keep tabs on this debate, she said.

“I will say that each and every person involved in that conversation, both Fargo and West Fargo and the state-level people, all of us truly wanted what was best for those students,” including access to early intervention and a team of professionals, Baesler said.

Separation worries

“I think the biggest challenge ... When you start to talk about a separate facility and you start to talk about putting these kids away from the integration (with the larger student body), that makes parents really nervous, and it does make long-time special education advocates nervous as well. Because it tends to lend itself to the idea of going back to that … institutional setting,” Baesler said.

She would prefer a solution where special education students get the instructional and behavioral interventions they need in a way that “isn’t isolated and isn’t separate from their peers. I think everybody does benefit” from seeing each other, she said.

A plan to build a $4.3 million Level 4 or Least Restrictive Environment-Setting D facility at Fargo’s Agassiz School for kindergarten through fifth-grade students with severe disabilities – including being emotionally disturbed or violent – was put on hold May 22 by the Fargo School Board.

Opposition from parents and other advocates to the two-year project helped to halt the effort.

Fargo schools administrators also halted special education projects for two other schools.

The West Fargo school district had announced earlier that they would not send students to the planned Agassiz facility this fall.

Rural security

Baesler said an earlier conversation with the head of the Highway Patrol, Col. Michael Gerhart, about getting troopers into schools is paying dividends

It’s a no-cost way to provide more security at rural schools, she said, and it’s prompted more cooperation between police and sheriff’s offices and schools, too.

She said Gerhart told her that troopers need a place to do paperwork and they’d be happy with an empty office, classroom or even a broom closet “that we can just sit in, we can certainly have a presence in the schools, build rapport,” Baesler said.

She said she’s happy with the results. She said DPI has helped at least three schools get in touch with the Patrol, though she didn’t know how many schools are working with the Patrol directly.

“I think it’s a very cost-effective, simple thing that we can do, just to randomly have a presence at schools. Plus, to give our students (a sense of) security,” Baesler said.

Baesler said she will be taking part in listening sessions this summer to find out what school districts and law enforcement agencies need to expand the program and what would be needed from the state to facilitate that.

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