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As specialized schools close in rural Colorado, families are left with few options

  Kelly George, with her son Riley and husband, Matthew, in Colorado Springs in March, 2023.
Rae Ellen Bichell
KFF Health News
Kelly George, with her son Riley and husband, Matthew, in Colorado Springs in March, 2023.

Facility schools which serve students with intense behavioral, mental health, and special education needs are closing in rural Colorado leaving families with few options.

Rae Ellen Bichell writes about the issue for KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), in a series called Last Resort, a collaboration between KFF Health News, Chalkbeat, and The Colorado Sun.

Maeve Conran:  These are schools that are closing that essentially have been serving students who have intense needs, mental and behavioral, to the point that their home schools and sometimes even their home school districts can't accommodate them.

Give us a sense of the type of students we're talking about here.

Rae Ellen Bichell: Yeah, it can be a really big range.

So that's the thing is that this population can really encompass a lot.

There are students who have autism who may need to go to a facility school.

There's also plenty of students with autism who can be served very well in their home districts.

So, that's just one example.

Then there's also kiddos with really intense mental health needs.

Some facility schools are set up for specific populations like kids who've experienced something really awful like trafficking.

Others are more broad, like they serve people with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Or even people who have sort of offense specific behaviors, behaviors related to something that they may have had to go to corrections for.

Maeve Conran: So I know that these particular schools are referred to as facility schools.

They have been closing really all over the state, but particularly in rural Colorado.

Give us a sense of the numbers and the closures.

Rae Ellen Bichell: So in 2004 there were 80 facility schools in the state, and now there's just 31.

So that's almost a 60% decrease in less than 20 years.

And what we've seen is that, if you look at the Eastern Plains, there aren't any over there.

And the Western slope, the entire Western slope, there's only one approved facility school now.

So what that means is that students who have some of these behavioral or special education or mental health needs, they're kind of stuck either at their local public school when their public school doesn't really have the training to help them out, or at home with, sometimes that means a parent quitting their work to try to homeschool or do online school.

Or sometimes it can mean they have to go really far away to a residential program across the Rockies or in another state.

And then on the extreme end, sometimes this can also mean they end up stuck in a mental health hospital because that's the only place that can help them, or worse yet in corrections.

Maeve Conran: Well this must have a tremendous impact on the students themselves and their families, given that these are students already dealing with a variety of different issues.

I know that you spoke with one particular family from the San Luis Valley, tell us a little bit about that.

 Matthew George hugs his 12-year-old son, Riley, goodbye. "I know exactly the pain that my kid is going through," said Matthew George. As a child, he was institutionalized in a facility belonging to the same organization, the Griffith Centers.
Rae Ellen Bichell
KFF Health News
Matthew George hugs his 12-year-old son, Riley, goodbye. "I know exactly the pain that my kid is going through," said Matthew George. As a child, he was institutionalized in a facility belonging to the same organization, the Griffith Centers.

Rae Ellen Bichell: I spoke with a family from Del Norte in the San Luis Valley, it's two parents and four kiddos.

And their eldest kid is 12 years old and he for a while has had kind of a variety of what they call behavior issues.

One of the big ones right now as he's gotten older is aggression.

So, you know, he has autism, he has a few other diagnoses too.

What his experience of the world is like, is very different from what your or mine is like.

And so for him there are things that are extremely overwhelming, surprising sounds, something uncomfortable in his clothes, or even like trying to do a task where his brain is just working so much faster than his hands are working.

And in those kinds of situations he can get totally overwhelmed.

And so his family told me that, you know, in the past when he was little, sometimes when he would get overwhelmed like that, you know, from hearing music at church reverberating off the walls or maybe a car backfires or something, he would start just screaming like he was in pain or throwing things.

But as he's gotten older, it's turned into aggression towards others.

And so now that he's big, the family has had a really hard time keeping the peace at home, and got to a point where they felt like they just couldn't keep him or themselves safe anymore, and that they had to find somewhere else for him to go.

Maeve Conran: And so what was their experience in trying to find a facility school for him?

Rae Ellen Bichell: Long and hard.

They wanted to find an option nearby, but there weren't any.

There aren't any facility schools in the San Luis Valley, the closest one is Grand Junction which is hours away.

They then turned to try to find a residential facility school somewhere else.

So they were calling places all across the state.

They were also calling outside of the state, you know, Wyoming, Texas, Utah, and they got turned down over and over again, or added to a long wait list for a wide variety of reasons, but one of them was that there just wasn't any space.

Maeve Conran: This is the George family and Riley is the son who they've been looking for a place for.

They did ultimately find a place, but it's nowhere close to where they can actually commute to.

Where did they end up?

Rae Ellen Bichell: He is now living at the J. Wilkins Opportunity School, which is a residential facility and also a day school in Colorado Springs, so that's a more than a three-hour drive across the Rockies, each direction to his home.

I was able to follow along as Kelly and Matthew George dropped their son off at that residential school in Colorado Springs, here's what they told me that felt like.

"Bittersweet. Yeah. It's sad that we're, we're leaving him here, but at the same time, I'm, I'm really hopeful that this is going to be what he needs to get him to where he can be okay and be at home with us," said Kelly George.

"I feel apprehensive. You know I can't believe that finally, after all this time, eight months, it's finally happening and my family's needs are finally being met," said Matthew George.

Maeve Conran: So we heard there from Riley's mom and Riley's dad talking there about the impact on having to send your 12 year-old child away and just the stress of trying to access these services.

So what happens next is a change coming?

Is more support coming for these families?

What is actually gonna be the future for these families and these students here in Colorado?

Rae Ellen Bichell: Just in April, the governor signed a bill into law, and this is a law that deals specifically with trying to support facility schools.

So there's a bunch of things that this law does.

The hope that lawmakers have is that this will do a few things.

It'll sort of stabilize the funding of facility schools, because that's been one of the big issues is that unstable funding means that it's really hard for these schools to stay open and also be able to hire the right staff and retain the right staff.

So it's trying to stabilize the funding.

It's trying to make it somehow easier for schools to become approved as a facility school.

So the idea there is that there would just somehow be sort of a broadening of the scope of what counts as a facility school.

And then there's another piece in there too related to rural school districts specifically, because I think even with them changing the requirements for becoming a facility school, a lot of the people I've spoken with in rural areas aren't really expecting to see like a bunch of new facility schools open suddenly in rural areas.

So there's a piece of that bill that says basically, 'okay, how can they sort of meet the needs of these rural school districts in areas where a new one might not suddenly pop up because of this bill?'

And so the idea there is they're gonna start a technical assistance center.

And that will be a statewide thing that will give priority to rural school districts, and can do training, it could do some sort of in-person or virtual support.

We're not really sure what that would look like yet, so there's a lot of different pieces to it.

But again, the key goal of these lawmakers is to sort of stop these schools from folding more and more.

Maeve Conran: Well, Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter with KFF Health News who has been working on this series Last Resort, which is a collaboration between KFF Health News, the Colorado Sun, and the Chalkbeat Colorado.

Rae thanks so much for taking time to talk to us today.

Rae Ellen Bichell: Thank you so much for having me.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.