Dakota Harnish, 6, talks with teacher’s aide Kelly Morgan during class. Dakota is autistic and his mother, Alicia Groff, says some of his past
Dakota Harnish, 6, talks with teacher's aide Kelly Morgan during class. Dakota is autistic and his mother, Alicia Groff, says some of his past teachers admitted they aren't sure how to educate her son. Her difficulties reflect the challenges educators face financially and otherwise in teaching special education students. (Bil Bowden) (Bil Bowden)

SEE ALSO: York County schools struggle to finance special education

Alicia Groff was at her wit's end.

Her son, 6-year-old Dakota Harnish, is on the autism spectrum and has bounced around from school to school, or, as it's known in special education, from placement to placement.

Groff says teachers at some of the past placements -- usually with specialized providers outside her home school district -- have thrown up their hands and said they aren't sure how to educate her son.

Groff doesn't try to sugarcoat the reality of raising a son with a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. She's forthcoming in recalling shopping experiences gone awry. She admits Dakota has been known to throw a chair or two in the past.

But he's still just a bright-eyed boy with tousled hair who will talk about trains all day if you let him. With all the money spent and all the experts involved, it shouldn't be this hard, she thinks.

"What is so hard about educating my son?" Groff asks.

For all that dissatisfaction, Groff estimates it cost Eastern York School District upward of $90,000 to teach Dakota last year.

Eastern York's special education supervisor Polly Lamison said she knew there had to be a better way to both reduce costs and still meet the needs of children such as Dakota.

Lamison, like others, said she's been looking into ways to teach students within the district. Transportation costs are reduced dramatically, and the district can use some of its own staff while getting more control over the education.

That's no simple feat, as it's not as simple as opening up a classroom.

"I'm always trying to be conscious of taxpayers' money in addition to serving the kids," Lamison said. "The goal is to get students back to their neighborhood school."

New program: A program is in place now that should benefit taxpayers and students, she said. Last year, Lamison set up a pilot program at the secondary level to transition special education students back to the regular education classrooms on their own pace.

It's now a full-scale program primarily at the elementary level. Eastern expects to save more than $117,000 this year as a result, and that's just for teaching about 18 students.

At the end of a second-floor wing of Wrightsville Elementary, Lamison's team has created a school-within-a-school for the special education students with behavioral needs.

Including Dakota.

The first-grader was quietly reading a book from the library one November afternoon as he and his classmates had reading time.

Across the hall, eight older special education students were getting to work on a letter-writing assignment. Early efforts to get students with behavior issues to write ended up "in a huge screaming battle," Lamison said. Not this day.

"This is how far we've come," in a few months, she said.

The "Comfort Room" is sandwiched between them in the hallway.

The former storage room is filled with ... absolutely nothing.

By design, Lamison wanted a safe space for students to have outbursts - a regular situation with autistic children - where nothing could get broken, the student could feel like they weren't getting in trouble for something not in their control, and the classroom wouldn't get disturbed.

Students can place a card on their desk with "comfort room" pre-written on it so an aide can take them before a situation escalates and without students having to verbalize what they are feeling, which can be difficult.

There's another room with bean bag chairs, computers and other features just for the students, including an area curtained off because some students feel more comfortable talking if they can hide themselves.

And the program also includes home visits by staff so families can better learn how to handle their child's particular needs, as well as give the school a chance to see what the home environment is like. Laurel Life, a Chambersburg-based behavioral services provider, is used to help supplement staffing needs.

The program is optional, but Lamison said nearly every eligible family signed up for it rather than send their child to another facility. And students transition back to a regular education classroom whenever they are ready.

It's not a silver bullet - some children have physical and emotional needs beyond what a district can provide locally - but it is attracting the interest of other districts. Officials around the county came to visit Eastern a few weeks ago to see how it was done, Lamison said.

Amazed at progress: Groff has been amazed at Dakota's progress. He's making friends with kids in his own district, he has a room for an outburst (although they have dwindled), and it's all nearby.

"There's been no hitting, no kicking, no screaming," she said.

Sitting in class next to Dakota, James Cooper, 8, was reading about volcanoes.

The Hellam Township second-grader grew up in the foster care system in Dauphin County, and there were times when he was homeless and went hungry. On top of that, he's been diagnosed with a litany of disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

Knowing he needed someone to care for him, Lori Cooper and her family took him in as a foster child and eventually adopted him.

It was a whirlwind year of home visits, consultations and more for the Coopers. Outside placements weren't working, and Lori felt James was getting punished for things out of his control.

"None of us have walked in their shoes," Lori said.

This fall, Lori decided to try Eastern's program. It seems to be an ideal situation. The district saves money, and James is at a neighborhood school with a specialized program.

"James feels safer here," Lori said. "It's night and day."

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com