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DL an oasis for special ed students

If one were to take a snapshot of all the special education students in Detroit Lakes 20 years ago, the photo would have shown roughly four hundred young faces.

Today, that same photo would show nearly twice that.

It would be a snapshot of a problem that is swelling throughout the country, but even more in Detroit Lakes.

“We’re running at about twice the state average in terms of the percentage of students who receive special education services in our district,” said Detroit Lakes School Superintendent Doug Froke, who says out of the roughly 2,850 students in the district, 672 have a special ed label of some kind attached to them.

Developmentally, cognitively delayed (DCD), specific learning disabilities (SLD), emotional behavior disorder (EBD) autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — the list of disorders and their acronyms is a long one, and so too is the list of students who have them in Detroit Lakes.

“Our incoming kindergarten class for next year has already been identified as 20 percent special ed,” added Marcy Matson, who directs the special education program for Detroit Lakes.

So why the big numbers here?

Froke says part of it can be explained, part of it can’t.

“What happens is, because the student population in Detroit Lakes is larger, there is a larger chance we will see what is known as low incidences, or things like visual impairment and hearing impairment,” said Froke, who says the need for different types of special education warrants the district providing the expert staff needed to deal with those issues.

That means Detroit Lakes naturally ends up being a bit of a “hub” for special education services.

Out of the 672 students receiving special ed services in Detroit Lakes, 71 of them are from surrounding communities.

“So then instead of a smaller district trying to staff a $50,000 position to handle those rare incidences, they will either purchase services through Detroit Lakes or simply open enroll because we can provide those services,” said Froke.

“We get calls from people moving into the area who will make a decision on where to buy a house based on where there is an availability of autism programs, and we have a number of specialists, so we draw those people in,” said Matson.

The unknown

So what accounts for the rest of the issue?

Educators working in special education are at a loss.

“I wish we knew,” said  Suzanne Borstad, a special education teacher in Detroit Lakes’ Roosevelt Elementary, who specializes in learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

“Yeah, that’s the big question,” added Thea Zitzow, who specializes in autism and speech therapy. “We’d be rich if we knew the answer to that one.”

Both teachers have been working in the field for over 25 years, and they agree that the demand on service, on special education teachers and on regular classroom teachers has increased to the point of becoming almost overwhelming.

In Detroit Lakes, two areas within special education stand out as areas of dramatic increase — autism spectrum disorders and emotional behavior disorders.

Matson says it’s tough to tell how much autism has actually risen because 10 years ago autistic students were labeled as developmentally delayed or as students with behavior issues or lower IQ’s.     

“But a lot of the kids we see now for autism are truly new students who we never would have seen before under any label, so it really is increasing in numbers,” said Matson, who fully believes there is something environmental that is causing a huge increase in autism.

“Everybody is trying to find out why, because we still just don’t know.”

Matson adds that one reason for an increase in special education needs is that advances in medical technology have translated into a better survival rate for babies born with physical or mental issues.

Another theory is that educators are getting better at identifying issues sooner and intervening quicker.

“The second we hear about a child being born with complications where there will likely be a special ed need, we’re in,” said Froke. “But I think that other schools are also getting better at identifying and early intervention, too, so that’s kind of a non-factor as to why it’s so high in Detroit Lakes.

A high rate of poverty in Becker County is pointed at, as a number of risk factors for special education needs can sometimes correlate with that issue as well.

Higher rates of abuse and neglect in the county are also suspect in the rising numbers in special ed, as Matson says they see a lot of children who are in and out of the crisis center and dealing with traumatic issues that lead to both learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

“ACES, or adverse childhood experiences, is a predictor of behavior problems,” said Matson, who says she sees how life has become much more difficult for many kids in our area.

“Ward Cleaver is gone,” she said, “It’s not Leave It to Beaver anymore, and a lot of these kids are living in some very tough situations.”

Even without these risk factors, Zitzow and Borstad say they believe children are spending less time with family and more time with electronics.

“We don’t sit down and talk as families anymore, and I think it makes a huge difference in how we approach each other,” said Borstad, who says the number of kids on her caseload that have emotional and behavioral issues continues to grow.

Whatever the reasons are behind Detroit Lakes’ overabundance of special education cases, staff agrees that they believe the school’s program, while large, is also in charge and effective.

“We may not know exactly what’s going on, what’s causing the increase, but we do deal with it, and we hope that we’re able to take these students and help make them into happy, productive adults,” said Zitzo.

Matson says the numbers show that to be true, as the number of students needing special education drops off considerably as the children get older, proving educators in Detroit Lakes are making a difference.

“Our goal is to get the students so that they don’t need us anymore,” smiled Matson, “so that they can just be regular, independent students.”