What investigators found at the Utah Charter for Children with Autism

The school signed an agreement to make “significant changes” to its policies and training.

(Google Maps) A Spectrum Academy campus at 575 N. Cutler Drive in North Salt Lake, seen in 2018. The U.S. Department of Education found that the charter school for students with autism and other neurodiversity retained and withdrew students, violating their civil rights injured.

A Spectrum Academy student was detained 99 times in one school year. Another was detained or restrained at least 40 times over two years.

They missed so many classes that the school violated their right to a free and appropriate public education, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced this week.

The two children were among more than 100 students immobilized or placed in timeouts more than 1,000 times during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years as part of the Utah Charter for Autistic and Neurotypically Diverse Children.

But federal investigators who tallied those numbers also found significant discrepancies in the academy’s records and warned that “the total number of incidents of restraint and restraint is likely higher.”

Here is the letter from the Office of Civil Rights to Jaime Christensen, chief scientific officer of Spectrum Academy, outlining the investigation and findings. Among them: Another 26 students may have been denied a free, appropriate public education.

Below is the agreement she signed that details what the school will be changing to ensure it complies with federal law. Federal officials noted that it contains “significant changes to.” [the Academy’s] Policies, procedures and training requirements regarding the use of restraint and seclusion.”

In announcing the agreement below, Assistant Secretary of State for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said, “Spectrum Academy is committed to taking important steps to ensure that its urgent use of restraint or seclusion does not deny students with disabilities their federally protected civil rights.”

The Office for Civil Rights will monitor the academy’s implementation of the agreement until the school complies with its terms and related laws and regulations, it said.

In a post on Facebook on Friday, Christensen said: “The report of high numbers of restraints or confinement is misleading at best. For example, when trying to stop a student with self-injurious behavior from hurting themselves or others, we hold their arm or the body part they want to hurt to prevent them from being seriously injured. This may happen multiple times throughout the course of a day as we work with the student to find and implement replacement behavior.”

She said federal investigators’ “primary concern” is “to ensure that if a student has missed class due to a behavioral incident, to ensure that the specifically created instructional protocols are made up. That’s what we’re working on now.”

The agreement requires changes to school policies, record keeping and training.

According to the investigative report, Spectrum Academy teaches K-12+ students at five schools in Utah with locations in North Salt Lake and Pleasant Grove. About 1,500 students were enrolled in the two school years described in the report.

Reached by phone Thursday, a Spectrum Academy employee referred The Salt Lake Tribune to Liz Banner, the Pleasant Grove institution’s regional academic director and Title IX coordinator. Banner did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment. Her counterpart from the academy’s North Salt Lake schools, Christina Guevara, also did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

The investigators consider physical limitations to be anything that limits a student’s ability to freely move their upper body, arms, legs or head. This does not apply if a student is accompanied by an instructor or staff member who holds their hand or momentarily touches their wrist, arm, shoulder or back.

Seclusion involves isolating a student and confining them to a room or area and preventing them from leaving. This does not apply to timeouts where a student is separated from others “for peace of mind,” the report said.

Justin Scaccy

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