GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — At first glance, nothing seems particularly unusual about the four-room school in this western Colorado city. Six students study radioactivity in the classroom. The walls of their classroom are plastered with motivational messages like “Determination” and “Courage” scribbled onto paper cutouts of stars and moons.
Hilltop Day Treatment School isn’t like any other school. No lockers or backpacks. Students are escorted in to the restroom. Hugs aren’t allowed, a precaution against inappropriate touching by students who do not yet understand physical boundaries. The students also take a break from their normal classes before lunch to attend group therapy.
Hilltop is a facility school, Colorado’s term for specialized institutions that serve students with severe behavioral, mental health, or special education needs when their public schools can’t. And this school, with 12 students, is the last of its kind on the Western Slope, the vast territory west of the Continental Divide home to 10% of the state’s population. The 29 other facility schools are located in the Front Range corridor, which is more densely populated.
“It breaks our heart to have a waitlist,” said Hollie VanRoosendaal,…