By The Gazette Editorial Board
The Iowa Juvenile Home serves some of the state’s most troubled teenagers.
Many have had exceptionally difficult childhoods. Many have additional challenges in the form of mental illnesses, behavior disorders or learning disabilities. All have been declared a Child in Need of Assistance by the state.
The Juvenile Home is not a jail. It is a part of the Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Disability Services. It is intended to be a structured, secure environment where youths can get help to overcome their rough starts and change negative and dangerous behaviors in order to become positive adult members of society. It is intended to be “a positive change agent” in these youths’ lives, as the facility’s own Web page describes it.
But last week, following a recent Des Moines Register report about the facility’s long-term use of isolation rooms for children as young as 13 years old, Gov. Terry Branstad issued an executive order calling for immediate changes in policy for restraint and seclusion at the Juvenile Home. He has formed a task force to recommend improvements to services, including eliminating seclusion rooms and developing a plan to turn management of the home’s educational program over from DHS to the local Area Education Agency.
Those things clearly are necessary if a pending Department of Education investigation substantiates allegations of several serious and long-standing violations of federal law regarding education for students with disabilities at the facility.
If true, it’s clear that DHS is not equipped to manage the education of these troubled students.
And it raises serious questions about other DHs-run educational programs in the state — programs that are not treated as schools under Iowa law, and therefore not subject to the same public governance and oversight as traditional school programs.
Broader changes are in order to make sure that educators are running and overseeing these programs, ensuring that all Iowa children have equal access to educational opportunities and supports required under federal disability law.
As part of its charge to help those youths make a positive transition into society and adulthood, the Iowa Juvenile Home is supposed to provide education programs teaching academic and life skills, and opportunities for youth to explore possible vocations or careers.
It is one of four educational programs run by DHS. Others are at the Independence Mental Health Institute, Cherokee Mental Health Institute and Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora, Rick Shults, administrator of DHS’ department of Mental Health and Disability Services, told us in an email this week.
The schools have been operating at those facilities as long as they’ve been in operation, Shults wrote. Last fiscal years, they were responsible for the education of more than 800 students during their stay at the four facilities — which range from as few as 11 days at the Cherokee Mental Health Institute to as many as 10 months at the juvenile home, he wrote.
Excepting Cherokee, which is a small program, all DHS-run educational programs are led by qualified, licensed principals, Shults told us. Cherokee employs two master level special education teachers.
The programs are run by DHS employees, subject to statutory oversight from the local school district and Area Education Agency, Iowa Department of Education Communications Director Staci Hupp told us this week.
But Hupp told us that programs like that at the Iowa Juvenile Home aren’t treated as traditional schools. “By law, oversight of educational programs is expected to come from the local school district and area education agency,” Hupp wrote in an email.
Such programs are reviewed by the DOE every five years, she told us. She said the agency has moved up its regular review of the Iowa Juvenile Home’s program and a site visit was conducted last week.
In addition, the DOE is investigating the Juvenile Home as a result of a formal complaint filed by the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa.
The complaint names the school, Toledo’s Herbert Hoover High School and AEA 267 in Marshalltown, alleging that students at the home were unfairly and systematically denied their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The complaint includes more than a half-dozen concerns about the home’s adherence to federal special education rules, including:
l Students in isolation cells went days or weeks with no instruction other than work sheets and homework assignments
l Legally mandated transition plans for students were inadequate, not communicated to students or altogether absent, and there appeared to be a widespread lack of understanding of federal requirements for special education.
For example, whenever a student with disabilities is suspended or removed from class for more than 10 consecutive days or a concentration of suspensions shows a pattern of typical behavior, the student’s educational team must convene to discuss whether the behavior is a manifestation of the disability that could be alleviated by changes in that student’s behavior plan, Disability Rights Iowa Staff Attorney Nathan Kirstein, who is handling this case, told us this week.
During suspension, students with disabilities are supposed to be given the support they need to work toward their academic and special education goals, he said. Instead, the Juvenile Home used a point system that allowed students to “earn” class time as a reward for good behavior.
“We continue to review records and find this was a typical practice,” Kirstein said.
He said Disability Rights Iowa intends to look into other DHs-run educational programs to look for similar lapses.
“It’s not just an issue at the Juvenile Home,” he told us. “It’s a concern when you have the Department of Human Services running schools. That’s not their specialty.”
Education officials have 60 days to complete their investigation or be granted an extension. If the allegations stand, affected students could be eligible for compensatory education or extra educational services, Hupp said. Their families could be reimbursed for education-related expenses. Program staff could be ordered to complete training in special education law.
“We’re starting at the Iowa Juvenile Home,” Hupp said. “If there are findings within the larger scope of DHS, we reserve the right to expand our review.”
That review should include not only whether other students at DHs-run schools are being denied access to an education, but also whether non-educators should be running educational programs under any circumstance, and if Iowa law covering the oversight of special programs is strong enough to prevent future abuses.
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