May 27, 2018
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Alternative schools offer unconventional approach for students with behavior problems

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

Second of two parts

FALMOUTH, Maine — In her mind, Marissa Corliss usually had a good reason to bolt for the door. And she knows educators at her school had their reasons for physically restraining her.

What they didn’t understand, she said, was that her outbursts were her way of reaching out for help.

“They’d only try to stop you at that time. They’d call the cops and chase you. Sometimes four or five of them would tackle you to the ground,” said Corliss, 18, a former Casco Bay High School student who now attends an alternative education program in Falmouth called The Real School.

“At my old schools they didn’t really try to help you get better,” she said.

At The Real School, which serves approximately 45 students from southern and western Maine, educators don’t practice therapeutic restraint or seclusion, Department of Education-authorized methods used in some public schools to control students with extreme behavior problems. Instead, The Real School favors a much more hands-off approach, literally. Instead of trying to stop a student who’s bolting for the door, according to Pender Makin, the school’s director, faculty would be more likely to offer the student a jacket to protect him against the cold.

“We think that therapeutic restraint is an oxymoron. There’s nothing therapeutic about it,” said Makin recently to a group of University of Southern Maine scholars who were studying The Real School’s techniques. “When you do that to a student, you’re doing damage.”

To some, giving a student in crisis so much space might seem like doing nothing at all. To others, such as Barbara Gunn, director of a public day treatment program in Old Town called the Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Students with Exceptionalities, restraining a student is a last-resort effort to stop him from hurting himself or others.

“Obviously our goal is to work with kids to give them more appropriate coping skills,” said Gunn. “Our students are here because they’ve got significant behavior issues. There’s nothing about restraint and seclusion that’s therapeutic. It’s an emergency situation. The only reason that you’re putting hands on the student is to make sure that people are safe.”

But according to Makin, avoiding restraint and seclusion is a matter of trying something different for a student who has failed in the public school system and many times, intensive therapeutic programs. Instead, The Real School seeks to make students understand they are responsible for their own actions — whether they’re misbehaving or doing something positive.

“When kids first arrive we ask them what it was like in their previous setting,” said Makin. “Invariably they attribute any success they have to luck or the task being too easy. When it comes to their failures, they point to some external factor and not their own decisions. We really work to attach a source of personal power and responsibility to everything they do.”

‘I’m a cook’

Alex Bouchie, 16, of South Portland is part of a program where students produce lunch for everyone on Mackworth Island, which includes The Real School and the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf. Bouchie said his problems started when he was being bullied and intensified when he “took care of” the bully with his fists. He subsequently was expelled.

“The school system sort of had a problem with me,” said Bouchie while taking a break from erecting a greenhouse where some of the lunch program’s food will be grown. “Here I take responsibility for my own actions. The teachers here aren’t looking to get you into trouble. They’re looking more for stuff students do right.”

A major revelation for Bouchie was gaining an understanding about issues that lie at the core of his difficulties. Preparing lunch for dozens of people every day combines the pressure of a deadline with a necessity for teamwork. The focus on the end goal amounts to therapy within the process, even if the students don’t know it, said Martin Mackey, the school’s vice principal.

“I’m not very good at socializing with people my own age,” said Bouchie. “This place has been great for my social skills.”

Asked by some of the USM students what he’s studying, Bouchie’s answer was simple and much different than it may have been at one of his previous schools: “I’m a cook.”

During a recent geography class, the teacher struggled to hold the attention of four of the five students. Though one girl answered most of the questions, the teacher went back to the other students but didn’t push it when they obviously weren’t engaged. Patience, perseverance and remaining nonconfrontational are at the core of The Real School’s philosophy, even though some students appear to have little interest for learning and questionable respect for their superiors.

“Our primary focus is reframing students’ perspectives about school,” said Mackey. “We empower them to make good decisions.”

Developing relationships

Though there is a points-based discipline system and clearly defined standards students are required to reach in academics and attendance, for the most part each student is part of defining and developing his or her own education program and goals. The factor that leads to success for many students is showing them that someone cares.

“Each kid here has a solid connection with at least one adult,” said Mackey.

Gunn, whose Old Town facility serves 45 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said staff members use a variety of methods to help students peacefully through their days — and creating personal connections with them is a key part of it. She said in general, students who have to be restrained or secluded improve over time, but it’s because of other methods.

“If the student picks up a chair and he’s going to throw it at me and there’s nothing else we can do, we’re going to have to put our hands on him,” she said. “We emphasize teaching them de-escalation, how not to get there.”

Even though measures are taken to avoid restraint and seclusions, Gunn said for some students it later turns into a teachable moment. Part of the process after the incident is debriefing with the student.

“We ask them ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What patterns are here?’ ‘What might we do differently next time?’” said Gunn. “That’s the real learning phase. It’s like going to the doctor. First you’ve got to find out what’s wrong to know what medication to use.”

Gunn has been an educator for nearly 30 years and has spent the past 15 years in her current position. She said it takes a special breed of teacher to work with students who have such profound problems, but emphasized that students at her school receive as much respect as any others.

“You have to like these kids,” said Gunn. “There are people who don’t like these kids and that’s too bad because you haven’t spent the time to develop a relationship. All of us here still like to get up in the morning and come to work.”

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