Utah charter school for autistic students restrained, secluded children, violating their civil rights, feds find

Investigators also documented a concern regarding Spectrum Academy’s record-keeping practices.

(Google Maps) A Spectrum Academy campus at 575 N. Cutler Drive in North Salt Lake, as seen in 2018. The charter school for autistic students restrained and secluded students, violating their civil rights, the Department of Education found.

A Utah charter school for autistic and neurotypically diverse children violated students’ civil rights by subjecting them to harmful restraint and seclusion practices, according to an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Spectrum Academy teaches K-12+ students at five Utah schools, with campuses in North Salt Lake and Pleasant Grove, according to an investigative report released Thursday. The federal investigation focused on the academy’s 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.

During that period, investigators identified 376 instances of physical restraint and seclusion involving 69 students in the first school year, as well as 692 instances involving 109 students in the second, the report states. About 1,500 students were enrolled during that time frame.

For two students, the instances were so frequent that they amounted to violations of their right to a free appropriate public education, which all U.S. students with disabilities are entitled to, according to a letter sent Thursday to Spectrum Academy academic director Jaime Christensen.

The first student, identified only as student A, was restrained at least 40 times, resulting in at least 14 hours of missed instruction. The second, identified only as student B, was restrained 99 times, resulting in at least 13 hours of missed instruction. Investigators found the academy also failed to consider if the students needed additional services to remedy their missed instruction hours.

Another 26 students, who also saw high instances of restraint and seclusion, may have been denied a free appropriate public education, the report states.

Investigators consider physical restraint anything that limits a student’s ability freely move their torso, arms, legs or head. They specifically noted that this definition does not include times when a student is being escorted by an instructor or staffer who holds their hand or temporarily touches their wrist, arm, shoulder or back.

Seclusion involves isolating and confining a student to a room or area and preventing them from leaving. It doesn’t apply to timeout, which involves separating a student from others “for the purpose of calming,” the report states.

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

But in a post on Facebook on Friday, Christensen defended the employees of Spectrum Academy as “the finest, exceptionally caring individuals anyone could have the honor to work with.”

She asserted: “The report of high numbers of restraints or seclusions is misleading at best. For example, if we are trying to keep a student who has self-injurious behavior from hurting themselves or others, we will hold their arm or whichever part of their body they are trying to harm, to avoid them getting seriously injured. This could happen multiple times during the course of a day as we work with the student to find and implement a replacement behavior.”

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

At times, she added, “As a last resort, employees specifically trained in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention (NCI) may find it necessary for safety purposes to intervene in a situation by restraining a student. Employees trained in NCI must follow strict protocol to ensure the safety of all involved.”

The federal investigation “did not find any instances of restraint or seclusion being applied improperly,” she added.

“The main concern was that we ensure that if a student has missed instruction due to a behavior incident, that we ensure the specially designed instruction minutes are made up,” Christensen wrote. “We are working to do that now.”

The report released Thursday noted inaccuracies in Spectrum Academy’s civil rights reporting practices. In the 2017-2018 school year, the academy reported 50 instances of physical restraint and 33 instances of seclusion — a significant undercount compared to the amount of instances identified during the federal investigation and subsequent compliance review.

The academy’s record-keeping practices “may have prevented [Spectrum] from being able to determine whether its current array of special education and related aids and services was sufficient to provide a [free appropriate public education],” a news release from the Office for Civil Rights states.

According to federal officials, the academy has agreed to resolve the identified violations and compliance concerns by making “significant changes” to its policies, procedures and training requirements “with respect to the use of restraint and seclusion,” the release notes.

The office said it will monitor the Academy’s implementation of the agreement until the school is in compliance with its terms and the related laws and regulations.

Some steps Spectrum committed to take include:

  • Conducting a review to determine whether any other students were denied an education due to its use of restraint or seclusion from 2019 to the present, and to implement responsive remedies based on this review.

  • Ensuring records about its use of restraint and seclusion are created and maintained, and that it will accurately report data in the future.

  • Implementing a program to monitor the use of restraint and seclusion with students to safeguard their rights.

Jenelle Hiatt, the mother of a student who’s attended Spectrum Academy-Pleasant Grove since kindergarten, said she was not aware of the federal findings released Thursday until she was contacted by a Tribune reporter.

Her daughter has not been restrained or secluded at the school, she said.

“I hope they have enough people on staff to help implement those changes and keep up on their record-keeping,” Hiatt said, “... or find options to resolve their problems or situations so [students] can just get back to their normal school day.”

Hiatt wants the violations and concerns that investigators identified to be addressed, but said she still entrusts the school to take care of her child — as she’s seen “phenomenal” advances in her daughter’s education and behavior during her time there.

Still, she does hope the school will commit to more transparent communication with parents and students.

“It’s a very hard job, because you’re trying to handle this child who doesn’t understand that they’re acting out and can harm others,” Hiatt said. “But secluding them because that’s the last-ditch effort ... I don’t think that’s appropriate.”