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Special-needs school could become casualty of state budget cuts

A Durham school designed for troubled children could become a casualty of state budget cuts.

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DURHAM, N.C. — By age 7, Brittany Newman had been diagnosed with a personality disorder, mood disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The now-17-year-old high school junior admits the journey was rough.

"I remember how I was. (I) hated life, wanted to die (and) wanted my parents to die," she said.

As Newman grew older, her mother said, she became angry, aggressive and uncontrollable to the point that everyone else in the household lived in constant fear.

"She threatened to kill me with knives," Tracy Potvin said. "I mean, she'd come at me with a knife. I was terrified."

Suspended from school several times and in and out of hospitals, nothing seemed to help. As a last resort, Potvin enrolled her then-12-year-old daughter into the Wright School.

The school, located in Durham, serves 6- to 12-year-olds with serious emotional and behavioral disorders and helps families learn to deal with their children's special needs.

"We serve kids and families," said the school's director, Debbie Simmers.

The six-month program, in which students stay at the school Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends, combines typical classroom work with extensive mental health services. It focuses on strategies and skills for success at home, school and in the community.

A recent Duke University study found that children enrolled in the program show "enormous gains" in the treatment and maintain the growth after discharge.

"It is seamless," Simmers said. "You cannot tell what part of the day is treatment. It's all treatment. It's all learning to live a healthy life."

But with the worst state budget crisis since the Great Depression, the state Senate has agreed with Gov. Beverly Perdue's budget recommendation to close the Wright School and its high school counterpart, the Whitaker School in Butner.

The annual savings would be about $5.8 million.

"The cut of the Wright and Whitaker schools is evidence (that) we're beyond having to cut waste," Sen. Doug Berger, D- Franklin, said. "We're cutting legitimate functions of the state."

Both schools have a waiting list. Combined, they serve 80 to 90 children a year.

Berger, who co-chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, has said the cost per pupil is hard to justify.

The state spends about $7,000 annually per pupil in the public school system, Berger said – less than the cost per pupil at Wright and Whitager. Berger said lawmakers agreed that in a tight budget, spending needs to occur where it would result in the greatest good.

"For this amount of money, we can cover 15,000 children over the next year in child health insurance," Berger said. "These are the hard choices the General Assembly is having to make because of the economic crisis we're facing."

The state House of Representatives is still working on its proposed budget, attempting to fill a $4.5 billion shortfall. A House appropriations committee said Monday that it is recommending keeping funding for the schools.

"It's a penny wise and a pound foolish," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, of cutting funding for the program. She is one senator opposed to the idea.

Kinnaird said she believes closing Wright and Whitaker will cost the state and the families more than it will save.

"There are very few places that can handle the severe problems. Unless we treat these children, we're going to be treating them in prison. Or worse – we're going to have a tragedy."

For Newman and her family, the result was nothing less than a miracle.

"I'm living the life like a normal teenager," Newman said. "Before, I was like, demons are eating at me."

"It was amazing what they did to save her live – and ours," Potvin said.


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