In the 2017-18 school year, Illinois taxpayers funded the placement of close to 350 special education students at some 40 facilities in other states. Those facilities were as varied as the students’ needs.
Some, like Heartspring in Kansas, are certified to handle a range of disabilities including autism, orthopedic and intellectual disabilities, and traumatic brain injury. About 30 Illinois students live at Heartspring, and it enjoys a great reputation. [To see Illinois State Board of Education definitions of each disability, click here.]
Other facilities focus on only one or two special needs — typically emotional disability and the classification “other health impairment,” which encompasses ADHD and ADD. Such labels aren’t an exact science, and neither is treatment.
And that means that sending teens to facilities in remote locations involves some risk — not only to the district’s budget, but also to the child.
Not all school districts use out-of-state placements. But among the ones that do, an analysis of 2017-18 data obtained from ISBE via the Freedom of Information Act shows that the richest districts used the most public funds for out-of-state placement.
Tier 4 districts (defined in Illinois' evidence-based funding formula as those having at least 100 percent of the funds needed to achieve adequacy) spent more than $9.5 million in state and federal funds for out-of-state placements, while the residents of Tier 4 districts chipped in another $3 million for tuition.
At the opposite end of the funding spectrum, districts rated Tier 1 (with less than 67.4 percent of funds needed to achieve adequacy) used less than $4.7 million in state and federal funds for out-of-state placements, while residents of Tier 1 districts contributed $1.6 million.
This data corresponds with another statistic: The rate of emotional disability is much higher in some Tier 4 high school districts than in Tier 1. According to ISBE, about 6 percent of all students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) statewide have emotional disability.
In Chicago Public Schools (a Tier 1 district) that rate is lower, just 5 percent of students with IEPs. But in Tier 4 high school districts like New Trier, Oak Park-River Forest, Mundelein, Lyons, and Township 214, that rate is 17 percent or higher.
As we reported in August, a student's access to therapeutic care can depend on their family's knowledge, resources, and ability to push their local school district into approving their request.
Tom Tebbe, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, and a former employee of a Tier 4 district, said more families would take advantage of unilateral placement if they could.
“Wealth is a great unequalizer,” Tebbe said.
Jennifer Smith, an attorney with Franczek P.C., which represents hundreds of school districts across Illinois, has attended scores of IEP meetings where these decisions get made.
“These schools vary in quality and appropriateness and should not be used unless they're truly, truly needed,” she says. “It's just a balance between safety and, you know, some of these techniques to keep [students] safe obviously mean really restricting their freedoms. So I don't I don't have the right answer.”
Stephanie Jones, another education attorney, is a former general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Education. Like Smith, she has no easy solution.
“I have to say you stumbled upon one area that still perplexes me in private practice, but definitely perplexed me, when I was at the State Board,” she says.
“There's not a good win-win situation. I mean, you're dealing with kids that have a lot of needs. You're dealing with parents that are in a very difficult position. You're dealing with an industry that isn't necessarily very well-regulated and is not often within the four corners of Illinois. You're dealing with schools that have to make decisions about the best way to spend the money and is it more prudent to fight it and try to stop the placement?” she asks. “Or is it better to find some sort of middle ground and pay for some or all of the placement and avoid all the litigation cost.”
In January this year, NPR aired a story about the use of electrical shock to control autistic students at Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Massachusetts; Illinois has students there.
In May of this year, the CEO of Great Circle, in Missouri, was arrested and charged with assault and endangering the life of a child. One Illinois school district removed a student from Great Circle and filed a complaint with ISBE stating the boy had been abused (it’s not known whether the two cases are related).
Both Judge Rotenberg and Great Circle are certified to handle multiple intensive disabilities. When it comes to facilities that focus on “behavior modification,” there’s an abundance of investigative reports documenting physical and sexual abuse.
The Missoulian in January published a year-long investigation of several schools in Montana, prompting the legislature to enact new oversight laws (no Illinois students were placed at schools mentioned in that investigation). In 2018, a therapist who worked at numerous programs in Utah, including at least two where Illinois students have lived, pleaded guilty to three counts of first degree felony rape involving a minor patient.
Another Utah school that has housed Illinois students closed earlier this year after a riot and allegations of sexual abuse. Two dozen staffers at that facility were investigated for child abuse; one staff member was accused of fathering a child with a 14-year-old former resident of the facility. The company that owns that school operates several others in Utah, including one where several Illinois students were placed during the 2017-18 school year.
James Kling, a behavioral consultant, has worked in residential treatment facilities, and he tries to help families find other strategies.
“See, I equate residential programs like emergency rooms. These are bad places, but if you really need it, thank goodness they exist. You don't want to go to a hospital because you can get like staph infections and things like that you wouldn't get anywhere else. But if you really need help? What are you going to do?” he asks. “So I don't know what the answer is as far as these higher level kids. But I do know that's the answer has to include the parents.”
Erin Woolridge agrees. She worked at three different programs in Utah for so-called “troubled teens,” including the admissions office at Discovery Academy. Reading over the applications, she saw some were just normal kids, with troubled parents.
“Some of those kids have been abused, and their families were abusive. So part of the difficulty of these places is that the families send the kids to be fixed, because it's the kids’ problem, supposedly, when really kids’ problems come from somewhere,” she says. “Things are always more complicated than it's just this one kid in the family who has a bunch of problems.”
Kling says he has noticed a shift among programs that treat emotional disabilities. They’ve gotten better at looping in the parents, having family meetings to lay the groundwork for the student’s eventual transition back home.
“Sometimes it works fantastic, and sometimes it doesn't. And it's an awful large amount of money for ‘I hope it works.’ Because hope is not a bad thing,” Kling says. “You just don't want that to be your primary strategy.”