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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho investigation into school district finds mistreatment of students with disabilities

Investigations by the Idaho Department of Education found that Garden Valley School District was “out of compliance” with federal or state disability laws in all 11 allegations against the school.    (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Garden Valley’s public school violated state or federal laws by frequently restraining and secluding an autistic girl and failing to properly provide learning opportunities to two students with disabilities, offering one little to no class time, state investigations found.

After receiving the two complaints in September, the Idaho Department of Education investigated the Garden Valley School District for allegations related to the school’s treatment of two children. Both investigations found that the school was “out of compliance” with federal or state disability laws in all 11 allegations.

Earlier this year, following an Idaho Statesman investigation, the Legislature passed a law banning corporal punishment in schools and restraint and seclusion as forms of discipline. The law went into effect on July 1.

Andrew Branham, the girl’s father, wrote in his complaint to the state’s education department that his child had been “abused” by staff members in the past year. The small school in rural Boise County has fewer than 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“She has been denied any education for the past 12 months as the school has been unwilling to meet the needs of our child,” he wrote, adding that she has problems with regulating her body temperature, a bipolar disorder, and auditory processing challenges.

The state also found violations of the girl’s individualized education plan through the school’s use of restraint and seclusion. Under federal law, public schools must prepare individual plans for students with disabilities and must consider using techniques known as positive behavioral interventions.

“Although emails from the parents reflected that the student was terrified of school, terrified of the self-contained classroom, and that the use of the self-contained room caused harm to the student, this information was not considered by the district,” the report said.

Seclusion room referred to as ‘padded’ or ‘safe’ roomAccording to the report, staff members at the school alternatively referred to the space as the “padded room,” “the (student’s) classroom,” and the “safe room.”

The state Department of Education found the school had no plan for the girl for several months in the fall of 2022, according to a copy of the report provided by Branham, and did not consider positive techniques – instead frequently placing the student in seclusion, suspending her or sending her home.

Branham told the Statesman he is “deeply saddened” by the treatment of his daughter, which he said amounted to abuse, neglect and torment.

“Our goal is to ensure these disturbing issues are corrected so no more innocent children are traumatized, hurt and denied an education,” he wrote by text, adding that he plans to sue the school district. Since posting about his challenges with the school online, Branham said he has heard from several other families, who have children with disabilities, about problems at the school.

David Tucker said his son, Cheveyo, was supervised by staff members who generally were not certified to care for children with disabilities. Cheveyo received “little to no direct instruction” last school year, the state’s report found. “Instead, the district relied almost exclusively on MobyMax for the majority of the 2022-2023 school year,” referring to an online learning program.

Scott Graf, a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Education, declined to comment on its investigations. The school district did not respond to a request for comment.

“The district repeatedly used restraint and seclusion as a behavior management tool, during which time the student would be enclosed alone in the self-contained classroom for undocumented periods of time, and for unknown frequency,” according to the report about the girl, now 9 years old. The Statesman has withheld the girl’s name at Branham’s request.

The student was secluded in the room multiple times a week after being carried there, after which a staff member held the door shut, preventing her from interacting with other students.

“When the student was not secluded in the self-contained classroom, the student remained isolated from peers,” the report said.

The investigation found the district did not seek to perform additional assessments of the student, or figure out positive behavior interventions to help improve the student’s behavior. From January until May of this year, the school’s response to the student’s behaviors was “constantly changing” her education services without formal meetings, the report said, adding that staff members often relied on a local police officer assigned to the school to address her behavior and were not “appropriately” trained to meet her needs.

During the 2022-2023 school year, the student “regressed,” and her school did not work to address her needs, according to the investigation.

“Instead, the district excluded the student from the general education classroom, the extended resource room, and the campus entirely,” the report said.

State concludes ‘deficient services’The reports from the state include requirements that the school district train its employees in special education techniques, deescalation, provide “compensatory services” to the two children and implement a new policy for restraining and secluding students.

The reports on both sets of complaints require the compensatory services to include consideration of all “deficient services” over the past year.

Branham told the Statesman that the U.S. Department of Education has also opened an investigation into the school district over his daughter’s treatment. Tucker forwarded the Statesman an email from an attorney at the department’s Office for Civil Rights in Seattle, noting that the office had received his complaint. Their Seattle office could not immediately be reached for comment.