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Washington Special Education schools abused kids

by Mike Reicher and Lulu Ramadan, The Seattle Times

For years, the complaints languished with Washington state education officials.

A therapist emailed about a teenage boy with severe autism, who had wailed for hours inside a locked room in her school, pleading to be let out. A local education official saw a teacher shove her foot in a student’s face as he lay on the ground and threaten to step on him. A special education director observed uncertified teachers struggling with no curriculum and urged the state to step in to protect “these extremely high-risk students.”

The alarming reports cataloged a failure to serve kids with disabilities at the Northwest School of Innovative Learning, a private school designed to cater to Washington’s most vulnerable students.

Despite the complaints, the state took no action to force changes at Northwest SOIL. Instead, it allowed the school to stay open and tap a pipeline of taxpayer money. In the five school years ending in 2021, Northwest SOIL collected at least $38 million and took in hundreds of public school students.

Northwest SOIL operated for years with few trained teachers, and its staff relied heavily on restraint and isolation. Some of the students made no academic progress and even regressed, as their parents were shut out of information that would be available at any public school.

The lack of state oversight has allowed Northwest SOIL to essentially warehouse kids with complex developmental and behavioral disabilities, according to a Seattle Times and ProPublica review of more than 17,000 pages of documents from 45 school districts, three police departments and the state education department.

“Northwest SOIL is an example of turning back the clock 50 years on kids” to an era when people with disabilities were denied access to education, said Vanessa Tucker, a Pacific Lutheran University professor who serves on the state’s Special Education Advisory Council. “It should not continue.”

A Northwest SOIL teacher threatened to step on a boy with autism, according to a complaint by an Orting School District staffer. The student cried and said, “Please don’t step on me.”

While most of the roughly 140,000 students in special education in Washington attend classes within their public schools, Northwest SOIL is the biggest player in an obscure but vital corner of the state’s special education system. It’s one of a set of private schools, known as nonpublic agencies, that serve about 500 public school students with the most serious disabilities.

Since the 1980s, states across the country have reduced their reliance on separate schools for special education students and moved to integrate such students with their peers. Washington, which has the nation’s second-highest dropout rate for special education students, has recently made strides by increasing the amount of time students spend in regular classrooms.

But for those with the highest needs, the state has been heading in the opposite direction, sending more students out of traditional public schools.

That led to the state and school districts pouring at least $173 million into outsourcing special education to Northwest SOIL and other schools over the five school years ending in 2021. While a full accounting is not available, state spending on these programs more than doubled during that time.

The state knows little about the more than 60 campuses that serve the students. Some of these private schools have decent reputations, but the state doesn’t track how many kids in private schools successfully return to their community schools — a key goal for many of the programs. It doesn’t know how many are restrained or locked in isolation rooms. Until two years ago, it couldn’t even count how many public school students attended these schools.

Those gaps are the result of a fundamental flaw in Washington’s oversight system, which places responsibility for monitoring the private schools not on the state but on individual school districts. State education officials said districts are expected to spot and correct problems, as they’re the ones contracting with the schools to educate students.

But because more than 40 districts at a time send students to Northwest SOIL’s three campuses, and each district only receives information about its own students, no single school district or agency has a complete picture of what’s going on there.

So serious incidents — one district learned that a Northwest SOIL staffer kicked a fourth-grader, another heard that a teacher dragged a 9-year-old boy with autism by his thigh — might appear to be isolated rather than signs of systemic problems. Pieced together, reports from parents, teachers, visitors and police paint a troubling picture the state has failed to address.

In 2019, a 9-year-old boy with autism told police that his teacher at Northwest SOIL grabbed him by the thigh and dragged him across a classroom because he wouldn’t run laps.

“There is probably a sentiment that those kids are bad kids,” said Carrie Basas, the former director of the Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds. “It’s just students that we have already written off, that teachers or school leaders may perceive as threatening, and we just send them somewhere.” She added, “There has to be somebody in charge.”

Even Northwest SOIL’s top administrator in 2021, Donna Green, complained to the school’s owner, Fairfax Hospital, that the company had crossed ethical boundaries. In a resignation letter, Green said she struggled to make changes as the hospital’s parent company, Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 health care corporation, cut staff hours and skimped on basic resources to increase profits.

The state “needs to be more hands-on to ensure that these kids are getting a proper education and not just feeding a money horse for UHS,” Green said in an interview.

Leaders of Northwest SOIL and Fairfax, the largest private psychiatric facility in Washington, declined to be interviewed for this story. They defended the program in a statement to the Times and ProPublica, saying administrators take seriously the responsibility of addressing students’ complex needs. The school said it has recently purchased a new English and math curriculum, along with computers for teachers and students.

“We are proud of our overall academic and clinical performance and earned reputation for accepting the most difficult referrals in the area,” the school said. UHS said it had no comment beyond the school’s statement.

Chris Reykdal, who heads the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in an interview that his office doesn’t have clear investigative authority or enough people to monitor private schools. But he said his staff looked into complaints about Northwest SOIL four years ago, and he stands by the agency’s decision to not crack down on the school.

“I do think that the response was there,” Reykdal said. “It’s just that people might disagree that we should have done more — which is a fair criticism.”

With no one responsible for scrutinizing the schools, even the most serious warning signs fell through the cracks, with devastating consequences.

“I Am Not OK to Be Here”

Northwest SOIL’s website paints a serene picture, splashed with stock photos of smiling kids. The Tacoma campus advertises hiking trails, pet therapy and 11 separate staff specialties — from speech language pathologists to licensed mental health counselors.

In reality, the building sits in the vast asphalt parking lot of a megachurch. The closest thing to a hiking path is a 200-foot-long walkway that cuts through a patch of greenery between sections of pavement.

Former employees and records from the state and districts describe more of an institution than a school: A staffer wands students with a metal detector as they arrive. Kids bang on the locked doors from inside “quiet rooms,” whose walls are sometimes smeared with feces or blood. At times, children wander the school or aides sleep in chairs.

The Times interviewed 23 former staffers, many of whom described chronic shortages of classroom assistants, inadequate training, a lack of licensed therapists and high-school-educated aides running classes. Amid high turnover, some positions sat vacant for months.

“My role was to be the school therapist, but it rarely worked out that way because they were so understaffed,” said Kingsley Simpson, who worked at the Tumwater campus from 2016 until this March. “I covered as an educational assistant or a teacher or at the front desk. I rarely got the opportunity to do therapy.”

Northwest SOIL said its hiring practices ensure that “only appropriate and qualified candidates are hired.” It added, “As in many areas of healthcare in Washington (and other states), staffing shortages are a challenge. Nonetheless, we meet appropriate staffing levels that satisfy our student needs.”

Former employees say — and documents back up — that Northwest SOIL staffers were stretched thin managing students and often resorted to restraint or isolation. But the state doesn’t track how often restraints are used.

Among the few reports state regulators do require are annual staffing lists. But even then, OSPI doesn’t consistently check them to see if staff are qualified to teach.

Jimmy Fioretti worked at Northwest SOIL for five years. The school repeatedly listed Fioretti as a special education teacher even though he lacked that certification and at times was only approved to be a substitute.

In 2017 and 2019, police investigated after two separate allegations that Fioretti had choked students at Northwest SOIL. Each time, he told the police he never violated school restraint policy. Prosecutors declined to pursue charges, citing insufficient evidence or a law that broadly permits student discipline.

Fioretti — who has been convicted of assault and felony drug possession — was also accused in July 2020 of choking a housemate while living at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation home, according to a police report. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and served five days in jail.

Fioretti did not respond to phone calls or emailed questions.

State law requires nonpublic agencies to “promptly notify” the state and school districts of “any complaints it receives regarding services to students.” But the law doesn’t define what constitutes a complaint. There is no indication that Northwest SOIL notified state education officials of any police investigations.

Scott Raub, OSPI’s administrator for these private schools, said in an interview that abuse allegations would likely count as a complaint, but “just because you notified us, it doesn’t result in anything specific.”

While the law is unclear about who’s responsible for investigating problems, the state has powerful enforcement tools. Officials can force these private schools to comply with specific conditions or prohibit them from accepting public school students if they don’t. That could have shut down Northwest SOIL. But the state never took those steps.

One day in late 2020, Fioretti wrapped his arm around a 13-year-old boy’s neck and hauled him across the classroom, as the teenager grasped at Fioretti’s forearm.

A school counselor reported the “chokehold” to Child Protective Services and the police, describing how Fioretti had instigated the confrontation and how the boy couldn’t breathe, his eyes bulging for half a minute until Fioretti released him. Almost immediately, the boy vomited in a trash can. The chokehold was caught on surveillance video reviewed by Tacoma police.

But, once again, neither the state nor the school district would know the severity.

In the more sanitized narrative that Northwest SOIL reported to the boy’s parents and his home district, Tacoma Public Schools, Fioretti wrote that staff “restrained” the student without injury and “attempted to deescalate” the situation, then “escorted him to the hallway.”

Shortly after the incident, the school director sat down at Fioretti’s desk. Fioretti said the boy was “running his lips,” according to an internal company email. Fioretti “then got teary eyed,” the director wrote, “and said, ‘I can’t do this. I love my job and you guys but I am not OK to be here.’”

Nine days later, Northwest SOIL fired him for misconduct.

Northwest SOIL administrators declined to comment on specific allegations of abuse but said “use of restraints and seclusion are always used as a last response when a student is at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others.” The school said any allegation is promptly investigated. “Since even one unintended outcome is one too many, we take the time to determine what lessons can be learned from the regrettable incident,” the statement said.

A review of more than 1,000 pages of restraint reports show that Northwest SOIL regularly sends districts vague summaries of events.

One teenage boy with autism couldn’t tell his parents what happened at Northwest SOIL. He only knows a few words and mostly doesn’t speak. So every day when he returned home, his parents would strip off his clothes and check his body for bruises. They found them often, said his father, who asked that neither he nor his son be named to protect the privacy of his family.

One summer afternoon in 2020, Northwest SOIL reported to the boy’s school district and his parents that he was shoving staff. They tried to “redirect” him to his desk, and he “tripped over a chair, falling backwards,” the report says, his arm smashing through a glass window. The boy, then 16, went to the hospital and received three stitches.

His father questioned how his son could fall backward, arm first, into a glass window. The report didn’t say where the window was or how the incident started.

Before the fall, the boy was marked as “safe, responsible & respectable – Holding a Book” at 9:38 a.m. Then he tried to “elope” — or wander away, a common occurrence among children with autism — 11 times, the report says. That was just 10 minutes later.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” his father said.

State Didn’t Intervene

As far back as 2014, Northwest SOIL was already drawing scrutiny from the state’s biggest school district.

Two special education officials from Seattle Public Schools visited the Redmond campus and reported that what they saw left them “literally speechless.” They said kids roamed freely around campus without supervision, and education was virtually nonexistent. They implored the district to withdraw all its students immediately.

Records show the district continued to send students each year but monitored Northwest SOIL more closely. After conditions seemed to improve, the school board voted in 2016 to keep using the school.

Seattle was focused on its own students. But administrators from other districts were also fielding alarming reports about Northwest SOIL.

In October 2017, the head of special education at the Orting School District, Chris Willis, emailed the state about the Tacoma teacher who had threatened to step on a boy. The incident happened in front of an Orting official and parent who were touring the campus, and Willis said he worried problems at the school were “more systemic.” But OSPI had no record of investigating.

Resources for parents navigating nonpublic agencies in Washington

Then, in May 2018, Rochester School District’s special education director visited Northwest SOIL’s Tumwater campus to check on a student and wrote to Glenna Gallo, then OSPI’s assistant superintendent of special education, that “the elementary student did nothing during the time I was in the class and no one interacted with him.”

During one visit, the Rochester director observed the boy opening YouTube on a computer and watching a game of “a man going to different places with a large machine gun shooting at everything in front of him.” When Rochester pulled him out of Northwest SOIL and brought him back into a district school, it found “little to no growth academically in the two years’ time that he was at NW Soil,” the director wrote.

A Rochester School District official reported to the state seeing a student watching a YouTube video of a game involving “a man going to different places with a large machine gun shooting at everything in front of him.”

A month after Rochester schools’ visits, Cecilia McCormick, a McCleary School District director, reported to OSPI that her district’s student had no special education teacher supervising his instruction. “This is a violation of both federal and state law,” McCormick wrote. The fourth grade boy, who had a history of harming himself, was told by a staffer he’s a “bad boy,” she wrote.

In the summer of 2018, the Tumwater campus was up for its annual review by the state. By that point in the year, OSPI had received at least five serious complaints about Northwest SOIL from district administrators and a parent. Gallo and Raub scheduled a meeting with Northwest SOIL’s leaders.

“We said that this is not acceptable. You have to follow the expectations,” Raub said. “And we got all the assurances that we wanted to hear.”

After the meeting, more complaints poured into Raub’s inbox. The Tumwater School District reported its student did puzzles while his aide — whom the district paid for — slept in the classroom. The school also didn’t provide speech language services for months despite telling the district it had hired a specialist, Tumwater added.

A Tumwater School District official, who visited Northwest SOIL, complained to the state that he saw an aide sleeping while a student “was just doing puzzles.”

Northwest SOIL didn’t respond to questions about the specific district complaints but said it “strongly refutes claims regarding the intentional billing of services not provided.”

Gallo approved the school’s 2018 annual renewal. She has since left the agency and has been nominated to be the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for special education.

Gallo did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in a 2021 interview with The Times she said the state expects school districts to address problems at private schools.

Raub, who was new to the private schools role in 2018, said he would approach the complaints differently now that he has more experience. He pointed to a 2020 case in which OSPI received abuse allegations at another private school and conducted a detailed review of student restraint and isolation files, school policies and staff qualifications.

But the department continued to be hands-off when presented with concerns about Northwest SOIL, including an April 2021 allegation of emotional and physical abuse against an Everett student by a Northwest SOIL staffer.

Raub instructed the district to investigate and said he would be there for “continued support” if it “uncovers a broader, more systemic issue.” OSPI said the district and family never followed up. Everett said it investigated but “did not conclusively find evidence to report back” to OSPI.

This month, the agency said it was investigating a complaint about Northwest SOIL’s Redmond campus after a parent reported inadequate staffing and their student coming home with injuries — the same sort of allegation that has flowed to the state for years.

Because of the diffuse oversight system, many complaints never made it to OSPI. Less than four months after the Everett allegation, Green, Northwest SOIL’s top administrator across all campuses, detailed a series of complaints in her resignation letter, ranging from a lack of training to cutting assistants’ hours that school districts had already paid for. She also sent it to Tacoma Public Schools.

But with no requirement to forward Green’s letter to OSPI, Tacoma never did so, and neither did Northwest SOIL, leaving the state missing a critical piece of the puzzle.

Other States Have Stricter Standards

In many ways, Washington’s special education funding system has exacerbated oversight problems at private schools like Northwest SOIL.

The state reformed its funding model in 1995, realizing that school districts needed more money to educate students with disabilities. It developed a safety net fund to help districts pay for special education services.

But the program prohibits those funds from being used to train teachers in public schools. And while a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling on school financing, known as the McCleary decision, resulted in the Legislature sending billions of state dollars to public schools, lawmakers sidestepped special education.

With limited options, the districts came to rely on the private schools.

The safety net model “made it easier for districts to say, ‘Let’s place the student at Northwest SOIL,’” said Tucker, the Pacific Lutheran professor.

But, unlike in other states, Washington lawmakers have not adopted key oversight and transparency regulations to protect students and taxpayers.

In Massachusetts, similar private schools are required to report all instances of restraint and isolation directly to the state, allowing central oversight.

This isn’t true in Washington. While the state tracks isolation and restraint incidents in public schools with a goal of reducing their use, it doesn’t at private schools that receive public money.

The only institution with the complete picture is the private school itself, but Northwest SOIL claims it doesn’t have to disclose the restraint and isolation reports because it’s a private company. The Times filed a public records lawsuit against Northwest SOIL’s parent company after the school denied a request for those reports and other records typically available from public schools. The lawsuit is pending.

Without information from either the state or the school, the Times and ProPublica requested copies of restraint and isolation records inside Northwest SOIL from 34 school districts. Only 27 districts provided reports, and many documents were missing.

The Bethel School District, for instance, destroyed a year’s worth of reports “in error,” an official said, and had to retrieve paper copies of others from a warehouse. A district that sent dozens of students to Northwest SOIL turned over fewer restraint reports than a district that sent only one.

Raub said the department is working to improve data collection and acknowledged it “would be very useful” to track restraint and isolation.

Washington also doesn’t demand state inspections and has vague staffing obligations. It requires an unspecified number of certified teachers and only one special education teacher per school. A representative from a district has to visit every three years.

In contrast, California requires periodic state inspections, a teacher with special education credentials in every classroom and a specific ratio of students per teacher, typically 14-to-1.

Stricter standards allowed former students and staff in California to build a whistleblower case when similar problems cropped up at Universal Health Services schools there. The company shut down the last of those campuses in 2013 shortly after settling the case, without any admission of wrongdoing.

Reykdal, the Washington state superintendent, said stricter staff qualifications could improve the quality of education and reduce staff turnover at private schools.

“I think it’s likely that our Legislature has to say, ‘When it comes to basic ed, we’re not going to have different expectations for the private sector than we do for the public sector,’” he said. “And they should up their game on that.”

“It Was Hell”

For parents like Sarah Snyder, the lax oversight of these specialty schools can turn finding the right education environment for their children into a terrifying ordeal.

Snyder knew her son Christopher needed a special school. He has autism and learning disabilities and finds it difficult at times to express his frustrations in words. Occasionally, he breaks furniture, hits his parents or punches walls.

Students like Christopher, now 16, can benefit from specialized care that private schools promise. But his mother said his stay at Northwest SOIL left him traumatized.

From his bedroom in Puyallup, his shelves brimming with Lego models, Christopher recounted his time at Northwest SOIL with extraordinary detail.

“They don’t treat you like people; they just grab you,” said Christopher, curled up on his Star Wars sheets, holding his knees to his chest. He spoke about being shoved into a seclusion room.

“It was hell —” Christopher said, glancing at his mom in the bedroom doorway. “Can I say that?” She nodded. “It was hell,” Christopher repeated.

In June 2017, a few days after starting at Northwest SOIL, Christopher came home with a disturbing story. He had watched as a boy was strapped to a chair by a belt around his stomach. Another boy erupted in an outburst, competing for attention.

Scared, Christopher, then 11 years old, wanted to call the police. “I don’t feel safe here,” he thought. “I don’t feel safe here.”

He darted across the classroom toward a phone on a filing cabinet and started to dial. A staff member grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back, yanking him away from the phone. (The staffer later threatened to break his arm, Christopher said.)

For seven months, Snyder struggled to get information about what her son had reported. She sought help from Christopher’s home district, Bethel School District, and its school board, as well as the local PTA and nonprofit advocates. She even emailed talk show host Dr. Phil.

“I was desperate,” she said. “I was begging, ‘Please, someone, help my family.’”

Snyder got Christopher out of the school within a month. But she kept complaining to officials for months after. In one letter to OSPI she wrote that it appeared “no one is responsible” for the actions of private schools like Northwest SOIL. Bethel said it cooperated with the state’s investigation.

The state found that Northwest SOIL had violated state laws, including improperly restraining Christopher and withholding the staffer’s name.

It concluded with a reminder that the state has the power to revoke Northwest SOIL’s status.

Five months later, OSPI approved the school’s renewal without any conditions.

Taylor Blatchford and Manuel Villa of The Seattle Times contributed reporting, and Alex Mierjeski of ProPublica contributed research.