In the 2017-18 school year, Illinois sent close to 350 students with special needs to private boarding schools in other states. The cost added up to more than $10 million for tuition, and close to $20 million for housing. But it’s not always possible for school officials to know exactly what that money buys, or for parents to know what’s happening to children in those facilities.
Many of these schools have names that evoke some combination of academics, nature and transcendence. Illinois has about 30 students at Heartspring in Kansas, another 30 at Bellefaire-Monarch in Ohio, and more than 80 out in Utah scattered among facilities with names like Alpine Academy, Provo Canyon School, and Discovery Ranch, where equine therapy is one of the selling points.
“Equine therapy” doesn’t necessarily mean what families might think it means.
Ted, now 22, went to Discovery Academy in Utah thinking he would learn to ride a horse, but he never got in the saddle.
“They made us try to direct horses without touching them, like try to direct them around courses using good communication. I guess that was what they were trying to teach,” he says. “I don't know how you necessarily learned communication from talking to a horse.”Ted asked us not to use his last name because he went Discovery not due to any disability but rather to work off a drug possession charge he was facing in an Indiana court. He was 17 at the time, just expelled from a college prep boarding school. He chose Discovery himself, after sitting down at a computer and browsing through several options offered by an educational consultant.
Erin Woolridge, who worked at the same school a few years prior to Ted’s stay, confirms his horse tale, and says it reflects the “experiential therapy” offered there.
“They give [students] a horse before they train them at all, and just said, ‘Here, try to bring the horse over here,’ or control the horse in some way,” she says. “And so the kid who didn't know how to do it would be chasing the horse all around, like frustrated because the horse wouldn't do what he wanted them to do.”
Once it became clear the student couldn’t control the horse, the therapist would compare the student’s frustration to how their parents must feel, trying to manage their behavior. Woolridge says this strategy was partly meant to promote empathy with the parents.
“But also,” she says, “it's certainly a form of shaming.”
And as for the academics offered at this academy, Woolridge says the program didn’t exactly prepare students for college.
“All they had to do was go through their packet and then take a test, and if they got 80% then they were able to move on to the next packet,” she says. “But there wasn't any real, you know, learning. There weren't lectures, there weren't teachers really working with them other than two staff members helping them go through their packets.”
That’s because academics aren’t the focus of Illinois’ out-of-state placements.
“Having comparable curriculum is usually not the goal, because the point of the residential placement is to prioritize some other greater need of the students,” says Jennifer Smith , partner at Franczek PC, a law firm that represents hundreds of school districts across Illinois. “So for example: an emotional need or, or behavioral need.”
Every student Illinois places in a private facility is considered a special education student, and has a documented disability. Certain schools, like Heartspring in Kansas and Genesee Lake in Wisconsin, serve students with multiple intensive needs like intellectual disabilities, autism, and traumatic brain injury. Bellefaire-Monarch, in Ohio, specializes in autism and “emotional disability,” which is defined by the federal government as encompassing schizophrenia as well as “one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
- An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;
- An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
- Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”
Discovery Academy serves two disabilities: Emotional, and a category known as “other health impairment,” which includes attention deficit disorders.
Woolridge, who worked at three Utah facilities, says kids came to Discovery from all over the country with behavior issues ranging from mild to extreme.
“Some of them were failing classes. Some of them are caught with marijuana. Some of them had been getting in fights with people, some of them were violent towards their family members,” she says. “Some of them were sexually promiscuous and the parents didn't agree with it.”
All of them, however, had parents who genuinely believed such a placement was critically necessary. The decision to send a child out of the home, out of the state, is a last resort.
One mom in suburban Chicago, who goes by the pen name Sarah Malloy, compares the decision to a “Sophie’s choice ” — having to choose between two painful options. Her son was diagnosed with both autism and mental illness. When his behavior endangered his younger siblings, she reluctantly placed him in a residential facility in Wisconsin.
“So I spoke with them over the phone first, and then we visited and then, honestly, you are so desperate for relief for your child and for yourself — as long as you know there aren’t serial killers running on the grounds, it's going to be okay,” she says. “Because you just need them not living in your house.”
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of Far From Home: How out-of-state placements are funded