Meeting answers Interagency concerns

Some people welcomed the new community; others could barely contain their frustration. The emotions ran the gamut at the public meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 10, at John Hay Elementary School (201 Garfield St.) to discuss the Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) decision to put an Interagency Recovery High School across the street at the old Queen Anne High School gym (215 Galer St.).

The school will be for students who have been to rehab and want to focus on their sobriety, rather than returning to a traditional high school. It will open in February with 10 students but expects to grow to 30 or 40 students by the end of the school year; it has capacity for up to 80 students. The students will come from Seattle, and most will be 15 to 18 years old. Interagency Academy is a SPS program that has other focused alternative schools throughout Seattle and surrounding cities.

While opposition has been loud, with an online petition gathering 837 signatures as of print time, community support is also strong, both with their own online petition with 903 signers and at the meeting.

Children’s safety

Interagency principal Kaaren Andrews started the meeting by describing her school and the new program. Then it opened up to public commentary and questions.

Andrews acknowledged parents’ safety concerns, saying, “We know the school will not work if every kid is not safe,” she said, regarding to both Interagency and John Hay students.

While no other Interagency school looks quite like the one that will be in Queen Anne, some Interagency schools are housed in buildings with preschools, and often, the Interagency students volunteer and work with the younger students, Andrews said. In those programs, they haven’t had a single instance of safety problems, she said, noting the only problem came when a student climbed a wall and damaged a roof, which they then repaired.

As of now, the Interagency school’s drop-off and pickup times coincide with John Hay’s recess times. Interagency plans to minimize contact during those times, and the schedule is flexible to changes, Andrews said.

The school will be overstaffed initially, with one faculty to every to two students, which will include a correctional educational associate who is responsible for everyone and steps in if any issue should arise, Andrews explained. There will be “a really experienced group of people surrounding this school,” she said.

Andrews also described Interagency’s “good” relationship with the Seattle Police Department (SPD), which is “proactive and preventative.”

The school will be housed in four classrooms, built in the floor below the gym, so the gym will remain untouched. Andrews mentioned that she hopes the gym will be able to be opened for community use, since Interagency students won’t be in the space after school and on the weekends. She also said she expects the building and its surroundings to look better than it does currently, since it will now be regularly maintained.

Concerns about students

Many concerned parents were upset by the lack of data shared by the school and wanted more data on the students’ pasts and the school’s success rates. However, this is the first Interagency school of its kind, so comparing data from other academies, with other focuses, would not be appropriate, Andrews said. The same concern was mentioned in the Q&A document that was released prior to the event. Thomas Redman, SPS Facilities and Capital Communications manager, who was the event’s moderator, said that the district will release more data soon.

Parents wanted to know what checklist and factors were considered when choosing this location out of the list of SPS-owned, but vacant properties. The people who made those decisions — staff members from SPS facilities department and the superintendent — were not at the meeting, so the staff present could not answer those specific questions. Redman did say that space is very limited and this one fits the school’s needs and makes financial sense, with renovations costing less than $225,000.

While some community members have suggested a site near The Center School (305 Harrison St.), it’s important for the students to be away from other high school students, said Interagency assistant principal Melinda Leonard.

The potential mental health issues the new students may have was a big concern. Andrews reminded the audience that these students were attending the school for chemical dependency issues, and while some may also have mental health problems, students will have access to chemical dependency and general mental health counselors.

Other parents were interested in what sort of things would be grounds for expulsion at the Interagency school. Andrews explained that all of these students would be SPS students anyways, but at the Interagency things like bringing drugs to school would result in expulsion. Students at the school will be subject to random drug testing; many other incidents would be handled on a case-by-case basis, she said.

There were questions about what constituted as sobriety. Audience member Frank Couch, who works at Lakeside Recovery Center, told the audience that sobriety is 35 days with no drugs. Sending kids back to a normal high school would mean putting them right back into the situation that got them in trouble to begin with, he explained.

Some people were concerned about the students having prior convictions. There are students in many SPS schools with prior convictions, Andrews said, and a previous conviction would not keep a student from coming to Interagency, but school officials would work with that student to get him or her extra attention and support.

The audience member that received the most applause was a young man named Gabriel, who attended one of Interagency’s recovery high schools. He spoke about how he came to the school as a “broken person” but now attends school at Boise State and has a job.

Many parents whose children are or were addicts spoke in defense of the program. One man said he didn't appreciate his son being called “toxic,” which is a word some people have used to describe the new students. One woman spoke about her teenage son’s battle with addiction in the ‘80s, saying he would have loved and needed something like Interagency during that time. Another parent talked about his son’s struggle to be clean and sober, which he eventually lost to accidental overdose, saying the kids who suffer from this disease need support and understanding.

Community support

Many people spoke in defense of the location and asked Interagency how they could support the program. Andrews said she had been “moved and touched by the tremendous support” and asked supporters to keep doing what they were doing.

One woman said she was “horrified and embarrassed” by the community’s negative response, saying, “God forbid” one of the opponent’s children may need the sobriety school’s services in the future.

Another parent said, “It’s sort of sad that we’ve come to be afraid of our own kids,” noting he’d rather have his kids go to a sobriety school than a regular high school, where drugs are likely to get around much more freely.

One man said he sensed a lot of fear in the community and suspected it came from the unknown.

The lack of communication from SPS regarding its decision continued to be a point of tension and frustration at the meeting. Martin Kaplan, chair of the Queen Anne Community Council’s Land Use Review Committee (LURC), addressed Interagency, saying there is a history of new neighborhood businesses and groups coming before LURC or hosting community meetings to get neighborhood input early on.

“I certainly hoped you would have more respect for 30,000 people,” he said.

Redman reminded the audience that Andrews had already apologized for the lack of communications.

Andrews concluded the meeting saying she wanted to partner with the Queen Anne community and have more meetings so the people can know the students and begin to “build bridges.”

“We go into this, and we go into it together,” she said. “I think you’ll see we are a great partner…. And we really, really do look forward to working with you and incorporating our kids into this neighborhood.”

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