Giant Steps’ expansion plan defended against neighborhood critics
When Kathy Roberts opened Giant Steps more than a decade ago, she envisioned a calming environment for students on the autism spectrum, students unable to get the care they need at their local school districts.
And Roberts that’s what the school has been able to provide, at a site on a cul-de-sac in the town’s Southport section for the past 15 years. The Barberry Road property once housed a Roman Catholic seminary.
So when Giant Steps’ neighbors came to a recent Town Plan and Zoning Commission public hearing and opposed the school’s proposal to use a vacant building on the site for a new program, Roberts was surprised. The “Next Step” program would be for students over who have out-grown the existing “system.”
Neighborhood opponents, among their arguments against the application, said that Giant Steps’ teachers and staff speed down the street, tossing garbage and cigarettes out their car windows, and responding with obscene gestures when asked to slow down. Some also contended the expansion is a business enterprise, and no longer a school.
“This chaos they described, it’s the furthest thing from anything we would want,” said of the opposition. While several neighbors said they’ve complained to the school administration and the town, Roberts said she can only recall one complaint a number of years ago that was resolved “cooperatively.”
Students arrive at the school by private car or vans, and that would also be the case for anyone attending the new program.
Parent Maureen Watson sent her two children to Giant Steps for 15 years, and volunteered at the school. She drove her children there every day.
“I have never in those 15 years witnessed anything of these things,” Watson said of the neighbors’ comments. Had she, she said, “I would have bought it up with the administration.”
“Giant Steps, the staff and families have been a part of this neighborhood for the past 15 years, they have provided a calm and nurturing environment for our children by keeping their numbers small and through a rigorous interview process for the staff,” Watson said, adding there has been little turn over.
Rogers sent a letter to neighbors explaining the proposed plans for the empty building, and offering to meet with them, give anyone a tour, or answer any questions. No one, she said, responded to that letter. She said she also apologized that it took so long for the school to come up with a plan for the deteriorating building.
“I was shocked when walking the block that some people were yelling at us,” Roberts said. “It caught me completely off guard.”
She said a complaint from some neighbors that she heard while knocking on doors was about the line of cars when staffers leave the school the end of the day. The issue was immediately addressed by implementing a staggered departure schedule, she said.
There are signs posted at the school, reminding staff that they are in a residential neighborhood. The teachers, Roberts said, try to serve as models of appropriate behavior for students. She said she arrives at the school at different times of the day, and has never witnessed the behavior described by neighbors at the TPZ hearing. Roberts also said that if any school parents had seen such behavior, they wouldn’t hesitate to report it to the school’s administration.
An anecdote related at the public hearing talked about the nuisance of a helicopter flying over the neighborhood, looking for a missing student. The only problem is that helicopter was actually looking for an elderly man with dementia. “We’ve never had a student go missing,” Roberts said.
Representative Town Meeting member Michael Herley, R-1, in an email to the TPZ dated July 28, said he was contacted by constituents and spoke with neighbors. According to Herley, the neighbors are “going to proceed with a request to the Police Department for a traffic calming study on the block and a subsequent public hearing at an upcoming Police Commission meeting in the fall.”
Space on the building’s second floor would be leased to small, start-up non-profits that “could provide real work rather than fake work for the young adults,” Roberts said. “It’s really a simple concept.”
The proposal is seen as a possible model for the rest of the nation, Roberts said. It can’t, at this point, be called a “school,” she said, because of state regulations, but they still consider those who attend essentially to be students.
“What we’re planning is a very specialized, focused program for complex young adults,” Roberts said, who are unable to work at traditional jobs or attend college.