Supporters fight for Durham-based mental health program for children

Jul. 13, 2014 @ 11:49 PM

Supporters are rallying behind a Durham school that provides mental health care for children as the school, again, faces the threat of closure.

A proposal from the N.C. Senate would cut funding for the Wright School if it moves forward in budget negotiations. However, a budget leader in the N.C. House, which did not propose to cut the school’s funding, said House legislators will back the school in ongoing budget negotiations.

The Wright School “means the world to me, quite honestly,” said Elizabeth Sydnor of Raleigh. “It’s the first time that somebody’s ever gotten what’s going on in our house, and what’s going on with our kid. It was the first time we had a break in years.”

The school is a residential program for children aged 6 to 12 years with serious emotional and behavioral disorders. Sydnor’s 13-year-old son Burton attended the school twice. She said he has a mood disorder, anxiety and severe ADHD, or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

He could be violent and aggressive and was sometimes restrained. He went to the school for the first time at age 10. Her younger son, Sheppard, had been living away from home with his grandparents.

“I know that my child’s safe when he’s there, other people are safe when he’s there,” she said of her son Burton. “Honestly, the first two weeks that he was there, I continued to hear screaming in my head, and then about two weeks into my stay, I didn’t hear those screams in my head anymore.”

And while her son was in the program, she said she learned how to better advocate for her son, and he learned how to better advocate for himself. The program uses positive reinforcement techniques, she said, and often allows children to feel successful for the first time.

“(Burton is) a great kid… and so many of these kids are great kids; they need help and they need help in a different way than other kids do,” she said.

The Wright School, with 24 beds, serves about 60 children a year, said director Pete Rich. The children are referred from mental health agencies across the state, he said, and typically, have at least three psychiatrist diagnoses, are on several medications, and have been placed out of their homes before.

The program started in 1963 using a treatment method called “Re-EDucation” created by the psychologist and policy-maker Nicholas Hobbs. Rich said a basic tenant of the program is that the children are out of synch with their surroundings. They work with both children as well as their families to try to get the children back in synch.

The school employs a psychiatrist part-time and consultants with physical and occupational therapists. The teachers teach academics as well as problem-solving, anger coping and social skills. The children are at the school 24 hours a day, five days a week, and go home on the weekends.

On a recent weekday, the walls were painted in bright colors, decorated with artwork. There were goals posted for each child such as “will learn the rules,” or “will use stress strategies appropriately three times.” Rich said the children are taught to relieve stress by going to a designated “peace place,” or counting to 10.

 “Emotions are OK, ,” he said. “It’s how you handle (them) that is problematic.”

On that particular day, celebrations were being held for two children who were graduating from the program. Seated at the front of the room, one graduate listened as teachers and classmates took turns describing his strengths. 

“It’s all about the positive and what kids are good at,” Rich said, explaining the school’s use of positive reinforcement. “If it’s all about the stick and control and authority, it only works as long as the stick is there.”

To try to keep funding in place for the school, Joe Reed, the husband of one of the school’s employees, said supporters got 2,318 signatures on a petition last year. They added an additional 1,264 this year.

“Given that the total (school) budget is approximately $2.7 million, it seems a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to reducing the budget deficit, and of course is devastating to the children, families, and their communities statewide who all rely on Wright School as the last best hope for their children's treatment,” Reed said in an email.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said the school has support in the N.C. House. At noon on Friday, legislators were still working on negotiating larger budget issues such as teacher pay, he said, and a sub-committee had not met yet to hammer out details of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services budget, including funding for The Wright School.

“The House is, has been, and will remain committed to the operations of The Wright School,” Dollar said, adding that there are House legislators who will work to maintain funding for the school in the negotiations. “The Wright School has very strong, very broad support because it is a proven program for children of severe behavioral issues,” he added.

Attempts to reach Republican Sen. Ralph Hines, co-chair of the health and human services appropriations committee, and committee co-chair Republican Sen. Louis Pate were not successful Friday.