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By Collin Breaux

If special-needs students at San Clemente High School feel sensory overload or are stressed, there’s now a safe zone they can enter to catch their breath.

The school hosted a ribbon-cutting for the opening of the zone, referred to as an “escape space,” on Thursday, Nov. 18.

Inside the area, there are hammocks, chairs, exercise machines, and artificial turf, so those with special needs can relax when they feel overwhelmed. The escape-space walls are painted in a calming blue hue to put kids at ease.

“The escape space was a preschool playground that was not being used any longer because the preschool was no longer here, so I asked the principal if we could use that to create a very special space and area for students with severe disabilities,” said Jamie Finnsson, a special education teacher at San Clemente High. “They have some hammocks, so they can read a story.”

Jordan Hieronymus, 16, tries out a hammock while Sneba Banik, 16, gets her photo taken at a new “escape space” for special-needs students at San Clemente High School on Thursday, Nov 18. Photo: Collin Breaux

Before the area was converted into the escape space, it was full of weeds and debris that needed to be cleared out. The project took years to fully come to life.

“There were tree trunks and all kinds of things that had to be pulled out,” Finnson said. “There was playground equipment for the preschoolers that we had to demolish.”

The renovation was done in phases and cost thousands of dollars, with numerous donors stepping in to help. Students got to participate in putting up new mural artwork for the escape- space walls.

Families and community members tour a new “escape space” for special-needs students at San Clemente High School on Thursday, Nov 18. Photo: Collin Breaux

When opening day arrived, students ran around the space and tried out the amenities with smiles on their faces while parents and teachers watched and took pictures. Families, educators, and supporters celebrated before the official ribbon-cutting with food and a DJ.

“When you first go in, there’s a bottom level, and that’s where the equipment is. The second level is where we have some swings,” Finnsson said. “Then, the third level is where they can play with outdoor bowling and some stuff like that. We have ping-pong tables.”

Boys Scout Troop 724 from the local area also stepped in to help with getting the escape zone off the ground. Troop 724 member Cade Clemons said the idea means a lot to him, because his sister was in the school district’s STEPS (structured, teaching, educationally based, promoting independence, and student-centered instruction) educational program for special-needs students.

“There was a giant structure in the side that we had to take down,” Clemons said when addressing everyone at the ribbon-cutting. “Four years of working on it really touched my heart. All the fundraisers we’ve done, it meant a lot. I’d like to thank all of you and Ms. Finnsson. It’s been so special and such an honor for me to do this.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at                         

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