Kim Stripling quit her job so she could homeschool her 5-year-old son full time after Clear Creek Independent School District recommended sending him to an out-of-district campus that made her uncomfortable, she said.
“That was their compromise — wanting to send him there,” Stripling said. “The area around it is fenced and they say it’s for protection, but it really looks like an institution. All the kids have to go through a metal detector before entering school. This place is a dumping ground.”
Parents and education experts say they are concerned about the outside appearance, the apparent lack of state accountability and the distance of the school in Houston from Galveston County.
But district officials stand by the decision to send students to the Houston school near the intersection of Interstate 45 and Interstate 610 Loop in the southern part of Houston, citing the strength of the programs.
District officials only send students to the school if they exhibit repeated behaviors that are dangerous to themselves and others and the setting is determined in a collaborative meeting with parents, said Elaina Polsen, spokeswoman for Clear Creek Independent School District.
Clear Creek is one of several districts in Galveston County, including Dickinson, Texas City and Galveston, among others, to purchase student slots for special education students with severe disabilities at an alternative school run by the Harris County Department of Education called the Academic and Behavior School East, 7703 S. Loop E.
The department operates two similar schools, east and west.
Officials with the Academic and Behavior School East did not respond to several requests for comment about the institution and its programs by deadline Thursday.
Together, Galveston County school districts are projected to spend more than $770,000 this school year in tuition at the schools.
District officials say the institution is the closest of its kind to Galveston County and that it has resources that local districts lack for dealing with severe issues.
“Look, I understand that the outside gives it a very forbidding appearance,” said Laurie Rodriguez, director of special programs at Dickinson Independent School District. “It looks from the outside like you’re going to jail. But on the inside, it’s painted a lavender color and is bright and cheery. And the entire campus is students in special education.”
District officials emphasized that only a very small number of students are sent to the school. Clear Creek, which has a student population of about 42,000, has only 11 students attending the school, Polsen said.
While officials with different school districts praise the programming and specialty nature of the school, some parents and education experts remain concerned.
“Another problem is that in the district, they are looking for round pegs for round holes,” said Louis Geigerman, an Admission, Review and Dismissal advocate for several cases against Clear Creek. “If you have a square peg, what they do is ship them off to that school.”
Admission, Review and Dismissal — or ARD — is the name of a group of people who made decisions regarding the education of a student, in particular, in relation to special education.
The Harris County Department of Education operates the Academic and Behavior School East using chapters 17 and 18 of the Texas Education Code, though Chapter 17 has since been deleted, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
The schools work similarly to an education service center in that the department forms co-ops with districts to provide discipline and special education programs, Culbertson said.
Students attend the schools on a daily basis, but remain part of their home districts for accountability purposes, said Susan Bowles, the director of special education for Hitchcock Independent School District.
“We don’t look at this as long-term,” Bowles said. “We take them there, but we want them back as soon as we can.”
The behavior school itself does not supply accountability reports, officials said.
“The best thing is checking in with the home district,” Culbertson said.
School districts across the state of Texas have come under increased scrutiny over their handling of special education programs in recent months after a 15-month federal probe found that the Texas Education Agency had effectively instituted an 8.5 percent cap on special education services.
There are potential problems with sending students to the behavior school, such as the extra transportation time and the possibility that parents could feel disconnected to their children, but the resources and programs available outweigh any negatives, Rodriguez said.
The Dickinson school district has looked into the possibility of starting its own similar program, but the cost of such a decision would be steep, Rodriguez said.
For parents like Stripling, however, the issues go deeper than cost.
“It’s a dumping ground, but it’s the only option they gave us,” she said. “I asked for alternatives, and that was it. How is this benefiting my child?”