When the School of Expressive Arts and Learning opened this week at a new location in Lombard, it gained a larger space, its own gymnasium and a natural setting atop a hill.
It also found itself in a dispute with one student's mother and grandfather who have raised safety concerns about the new site that school officials say are misplaced.
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Among the facility's many new features are some nearby wetlands that led the worried family to ask that a fence be added as an additional safety precaution at the private therapeutic day school for students who need additional support to learn.
The family of 10-year-old Gabriel Cloutier-Regan of Villa Park wants the fence to ensure students don't wander or fall into the marshy wetlands that border the school on its east, south and west sides. School officials say they took safety into account throughout development of the $5.5 million facility at 240 E. Progress Road, and it is not in their best interests to add a fence.
The result is a stalemate that temporarily has led the school to prohibit Gabriel from attending classes until the dispute is resolved.
"We definitely have more ability to create and maintain a safe environment here" than at the previous Lombard location in an industrial park at 1110 N. Main St., said Karen Larson, one of the school's founders. "We put a lot in place to be sure we've built a safe environment where the students can be educated."
But Gabriel's mother and grandfather say a fence is the only measure that can make sure the boy and his 79 fellow students remain safe during recess and as they get dropped off and picked up from school.
"He's a good kid, but he can wander," Susan Cloutier-Regan said about her son, who has a mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome and sensory processing disorder. "He wants to see things."
Gabriel's grandfather, John Regan, began contacting municipal and state-level school officials with concerns about the wetlands a couple weeks before classes began Jan. 7 at the new location. He said he wanted fencing installed before that date as a precaution.
"I've got no problem with the school itself -- it's the safety factor I'm concerned with," Regan said. "Let's prevent a problem before it happens."
The bodies of water near the school are natural to the site and classified by DuPage County as protected wetlands, said William Heniff, Lombard's community development director. That means the school had to get special county permits for construction and had to take precautions to disturb the wetlands as little as possible.
"Development was meant to be compact and avoid the wetland area, not to fundamentally regrade the site," Heniff said. "It does create more of a natural, native setting for the school itself as opposed to being in the middle of an industrial park."
Larson said the school discussed safety around the wetlands both before and after Gabriel's family raised concerns and decided not to install a fence.
Students are supervised at all times during the school day -- whether they are inside a classroom, in the bathroom or outside -- and Larson said adding a fence could create additional hazards, as students could climb it or otherwise injure themselves.
"With a fence, there's a slight chance of something happening. Without it, there's a major chance," Regan said. "It's a question of school safety. Period."
Fencing is not required by any of the governmental agencies that oversee the school. The county does not require fencing, nor does the village, which in September 2011 gave the school permission to build on a site originally zoned for light industrial use.
The Illinois State Board of Education approves the programming for private therapeutic day schools such as the School of Expressive Arts and Learning, but it is not responsible for approving site plans.
SEAL is private and for-profit, but it gets most of its students via placements from public schools. When staff members at a public school decide a student needs an individual education plan, placing the student at a therapeutic day school, such as SEAL, becomes an option.
Larson said whether a student has a tendency to wander off is one factor evaluated while determining if SEAL is appropriate for that student. If the child has run before, she said parents and educators may choose a different school.
Gabriel attended one day of classes at SEAL's new location, but he will be staying home until a meeting between school officials and his family scheduled for Tuesday.
Cloutier-Regan said it is not fair to penalize her son -- who she said has been making good progress since enrolling at SEAL in fall 2011 -- for her safety concerns.
"They basically told me either drop it or take my kid out of the school," Cloutier-Regan said. "I don't want to feel pressured to take my kid out of the school, but I want everything to be safe."
Larson said whether Cloutier-Regan believes the school is safe for Gabriel and whether it is still an appropriate place for him to learn needs to be addressed before he returns to classes. SEAL has given him school work to continue his education at home before the meeting.
"We had asked that until she is comfortable with the facility or the appropriateness of the placement ... that he not attend until we have that meeting," Larson said.
No other parents have raised safety concerns about the new building or the wetlands. SEAL students spend their full day at the school and learn a curriculum that includes reading, spelling, math, science and social studies in addition to participating in expressive therapy in art, music and recreation.