Feds previously found Spectrum Academy violated autistic child’s civil rights, parent says

Spectrum Academy has defended its treatment of students since federal education officials announced in September that the school violated kids’ civil rights by excessively restraining and isolating them.

But the parent of a former Spectrum student now says an earlier federal investigation into her son’s experience resulted in similar findings — and, records show, an earlier promise by the academy to examine how it was physically intervening with children and to update how it was training staff.

Tiffany Strong said her family was “thrilled” when the Utah charter school for autistic and neurotypically diverse children had space for her autistic son to begin kindergarten at its Pleasant Grove campus in 2016. But as he grew older, she said, he was being isolated more frequently at the academy.

Between May 2019 and October 2019, federal investigators later confirmed, Strong and her husband Will emailed school staff seven times, concerned about how repeated seclusion seemed to be affecting their son. He was having accidents despite being toilet-trained, Strong remembers, and “he started not wanting to leave the house and go anywhere.”

One morning in October 2019, when her son was 7 and had started third grade, “I had this crazy gut feeling,” Strong said. She went to the school and found him in a seclusion room, “covered in poop,” she said. “He had soiled himself. He was spreading poop everywhere. We took him out that day and we never brought him back.”

Strong took her son’s case to the Disability Law Center of Utah, a nonprofit that specializes in protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. Attorney Nate Crippes helped them file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in March 2020.

Federal investigators subsequently determined that Spectrum’s “repeated use of seclusion” had denied Strong’s son a free appropriate public education, to which all U.S. students with disabilities are entitled, according to a Sept. 17, 2020, letter sent to Crippes.

The boy was secluded 50 times between Sept. 5 and Oct. 28, 2019, civil rights investigators found, amounting to 9 hours and 4 minutes of missed instruction time, according to the letter.

Their 2020 findings mirrored the results of the broader investigation federal officials announced last month.

Boy was traumatized, developed new needs, feds found

Spectrum Academy teaches K-12+ students at five Utah schools, with campuses in North Salt Lake and Pleasant Grove. The broader, separate federal investigation announced in September focused on all of the academy’s students during its 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.

It’s unclear if Strong’s son was one of the two unidentified students whose rights to an education were found to have been violated by the school. While the two investigations overlapped, the seclusions he experienced in October 2019 fell outside the time frame of the broader examination. The Office for Civil Rights did not comment on the possible connection.

In that broader investigation, officials “did not find any instances of restraint or seclusion being applied improperly,” the school’s academic director, Jaime Christensen, has said. She has said the school is working to ensure students make up instruction after being removed from class, as federal officials said the school had been failing to consistently do or document.

[Read more: See the documents: What investigators found at Utah charter for kids with autism]

The federal examination of the treatment of Strong’s son focused on the boy’s 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, though in his second year, he was only enrolled for two months in the fall of 2019.

He was secluded at least once on 21 of the 29 days he attended Spectrum that year, or 72.4% of the days he was enrolled, the letter to the family’s attorney stated.

The letter did not specify the total number of times Strong’s son was secluded before his 2019 school year began, noting only that during a two-week period in April 2019, he had been secluded for a total of 1 hour and 16 minutes.

But the investigation did find that, throughout the entire time period that investigators examined, Strong’s son had been traumatized and secluded “to the point where he developed new academic or behavioral difficulties and needs.”

Spectrum Academy disagreed with parts of investigators’ findings regarding Strong’s son, school officials said in a joint statement shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Spectrum Academy did not deny the student [a free appropriate public education] by subjecting him to seclusion,” the statement reads.

School officials noted that the Office for Civil Rights did not conduct an on-site visit during that investigation, which officials said “primarily relied on the interpretation of submitted paperwork and human recollections retroactively.”

Still, the school agreed to take corrective action to resolve the Strong family’s complaint, pledging to make up instructional time that kids missed during periods of seclusion and update policies and procedures to ensure staff only use physical interventions as a last resort, according to a report summarizing investigators’ findings that was provided to The Tribune.

‘He didn’t fit into their mold’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tiffany and William Strong, outside their Orem home on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. When their son first got into Spectrum Academy, they were thrilled, Tiffany said.

Strong’s son, who is now 12, has severe developmental delays, his mother said, and is mostly nonverbal.

The Strong family had moved closer to Spectrum’s Pleasant Grove campus after their son was accepted, Strong said, and “kindergarten was awesome.”

But in first grade, he was placed on what is called a “functional skills track” after he didn’t progress as expected, she said.

The track is one of three academic paths offered at Spectrum, federal investigators explained in September. It’s specifically designed for students who school staff determine are developmentally delayed and performing significantly below grade level, investigators wrote.

“He didn’t fit into their — and it’s funny to say he didn’t fit into their box, because, in an autism school, there’s really no boxes for kids — he didn’t fit into their mold of a kid on the spectrum,” Strong said.

Physical restraint and seclusion are allowed under state law as emergency interventions, meaning they can only be used if a student is a danger to themselves or others.

Seclusion involves placing a child in an isolated room and preventing them from leaving. It differs from a “timeout,” which involves separating a student from others “for the purpose of calming,” federal investigators wrote in the September report.

Physical restraint is considered anything that limits a student’s ability to freely move their torso, arms, legs or head. Children can be held or secured for no more than 30 minutes at a time.

According to Spectrum’s policies, which are described on the school’s website, only staff trained in nonviolent crisis intervention are allowed to restrain or seclude students, and they can only do so after they have tried other de-escalation techniques.

But seclusion was becoming a near-daily occurrence for Strong’s son, she said. “He was potty trained, [but he started] having accidents everywhere, even at his grandparents’ houses or friends’ houses.”

Research shows that toilet-training regression can be associated with trauma or high levels of stress in children, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Spectrum Academy provided documentation to the Office for Civil Rights that indicated each time Strong’s son was secluded, the practice was preceded by “aggressive physical behavior,” such as “hitting, kicking, headbutting, biting and throwing objects,” according to the investigative report related to Strong’s case.

Strong’s son was also secluded for behaviors such as screaming, disrobing, and running on tables, the report states. Staff interviewed by federal investigators said seclusion was always used as a last resort.

Strong said the more her son was secluded, the worse his behavior became. In their emails to school staff, Strong and her husband said their son referred to the seclusion room as a “cage” and perceived himself as a “bad kid” for being placed there. He feared and hated school staff, cried and screamed before school, was not sleeping or eating, and had threatened to kill himself, the Strongs wrote.

On May 22, 2019, the child’s doctor notified school staff that the boy was in emotional distress and could not attend school for the remainder of the 2018-2019 year, noting that the school environment was mentally unhealthy for him, according to the investigative report.

Despite having knowledge that Strong’s son was being negatively affected by seclusion, and school staff acknowledging to federal investigators that “he was, or may have been” traumatized, there is no evidence that the school took remedial measures, the report stated.

Spectrum Academy officials said that while the Strongs did communicate concern about their son’s seclusion, they never alerted staff that they were “unhappy with team decisions.”

“The Strongs were very supportive of Spectrum Academy and we held multiple meetings to discuss behavior and appropriate interventions to implement [with their son],” Spectrum officials said.

“While Tiffany may have articulated concern over seclusion in a meeting, she was happy and a contributing member [of her son’s] team, and we were trying everything that we thought might help him,” their statement continued, adding that officials were “surprised to suddenly receive her complaint from [the Office for Civil Rights].”

Students with disabilities are entitled to an education

Investigators’ findings reflect a failure by Spectrum Academy to adequately educate Strong’s son, Crippes, the family’s attorney, said.

“What we saw was clearly a pattern, that he had been put in seclusionary timeout a lot,” Crippes said. “That practice was utilized in such a manner that it essentially denied him any real education.”

Federal law states that K-12 students with disabilities have the same right to a free appropriate public education as students without disabilities.

To ensure children with disabilities receive an appropriate education, schools must develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which guarantees additional, special services.

Students may also be placed on a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP — a plan that teaches and rewards good behavior.

Strong’s son had an IEP and a BIP, both of which the school failed to properly implement, federal investigators found.

Under his IEP, the boy was supposed to be allocated a specific amount of time each week for specialized education in subjects such as math, functional social skills, and language arts, the investigative report states. He was also entitled to 90 minutes of speech-language services and 30 minutes of occupational therapy each month.

The child’s BIP separately entitled him to a daily outline of classroom activities, a “break zone” in the classroom with weighted blankets and other stimuli, and cards that he could present to staff to request a break or other needs, the report states.

Had Spectrum properly implemented the child’s IEP and BIP, it may have resulted in fewer behaviors that prompted the use of seclusion, federal investigators found.

Investigators also noted concerns with one of the child’s teachers. According to witness accounts, the teacher failed to create lesson plans and would often allow students to watch YouTube on their iPads for hours each day, the report states.

Federal investigators also alleged that school staff falsified data about his progress.

The teacher no longer works for the school, Spectrum officials said, but they denied any data was falsified.

They also said all seclusions and restraints performed on Strong’s son were consistent with state law, and argued that all measures outlined in the boy’s BIP were carried out.

Officials added that the school psychologist asked for permission to collaborate with the boy’s personal psychiatrist in September 2019 but said his parents denied the request. The psychologist “felt that having direct communication between her and [the child’s doctor] could have potentially offered valuable insights into strategies to better support [him],” Spectrum officials said in their statement.

The Office for Civil Rights’ findings said the parents believed the academy already had all of the medical records it needed. Investigators also pointed out that an assistant principal had already spoken earlier in the year with the boy’s doctor, with the family’s permission.

A long road still ahead

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tiffany and William Strong, shown outside their home in Orem, have since homeschooled their son. They are now working part-time to care for him and their other child, who also has disabilities, Tiffany said.

Strong’s son is now homeschooled, and while his mother can see glimpses of who he was before Spectrum Academy — a dinosaur-loving, happy child — he’s not the same, she said.

“Any kid that goes through a traumatic event that intellectually can’t get through a traumatic event with typical therapy or talking, it’s going to take longer,” Strong said. “And so we’ve kind of just been waiting it out.”

To care for their son’s needs, as well as their other child who also has disabilities, Strong said she and her husband now both work part-time.

“We were a two-income household with high-needs kids,” she said. “And now we’re making less than one [of us used to make].”

Strong said she hopes other families never have to endure what they have.

“It is life-changing. It’s life-altering, for our family and for our kids,” she said. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t make you not human.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism

Justin Scaccy

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