Proposed Senate Budget Would Cut Wright School Funding

May 22, 2017

Credit Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Senators have again threatened to close North Carolina’s only state-run residential school for kids with severe mental illness. The Senate’s latest budget is the sixth to propose defunding the facility.

The Wright School opened in Durham in 1963, and accepts students from across the state. Its mission is to provide cost-effective residential mental health treatment.

Senate lawmakers balk at the annual cost of the school, which is around $55,000 dollars per child. Elizabeth Sydnor, whose son attended the school twice, believes this investment prevents greater costs down the line -- when students who haven't been treated might land in the juvenile justice system.

“Having a kid have a court counselor, probation officer, an attorney, you know -- all of those things,” Sydnor said, listing potential costs to the state. “And then you're getting a kid on the back end when the damage is already done. The kid’s already got a record.”

Sydnor said the school's efforts should be expanded and replicated across the state, not ended.

Linda McDonough agrees. She runs a private school in Chapel Hill modeled after the Wright School.

Her daughter attended the Durham facility in 2008. She said having her daughter live at the school during the week allowed staff to see the “whole picture."

“They could see what was going on around the clock. And kids became familiar enough with them that they would do the same behaviors at night,” she said. “You have some kids that do fine during the day, and then they go home and they’re terrorizing the whole family.”

She said that seeing her daughter’s behavior at all times of the day allowed Wright School staff to appropriately address it. Then they could teach McDonough how to address it at home.

“I think at that point, the biggest effect [the school] had was on me,” she said, “and learning to accept the fact that she had mental illness, and learning how to cope with that more effectively, how to be a better advocate.”

In the past, funding for the school has been restored by the House. That chamber is expected to draw up its budget after Memorial Day.