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Far From Home: Q&A On "Statewide"

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Sean Crawford: All this week, Dusty has been sharing a series of stories about special education students placed in private facilities in other states — how many students, who pays for the placements, and why Illinois passed that law banning placements in the state of Utah. She joins me now to discuss the project. 

Q: So Dusty how many of these kids actually leave Illinois for school?

A: Close to 350 for residential placement, another 140 or so are in therapeutic day school, mostly in the St. Louis area.

Q:  So what kind of disabilities to these students have?


A: Wisconsin has about 55 Illinois students there. They're certified for several disabilities — intellectual, TBI [traumatic brain injury], autism, emotional disability. Ohio has about 30 students there, mainly kids with autism. Missouri has more than 50 living at Great Circle, where they treat autism, emotional disability, intellectual disability, developmental delay, a whole range of things. Another 25 are at a place on Lake of the Ozarks, where they just treat emotional disability and something called "other health impairment." Other health impairment is a disability classification that includes Attention Deficit Disorder and ADHD.

But Utah has more than 80 (all these numbers that I'm mentioning are from the 2017-18 school year) and Utah seems to specialize in emotional disability. 

[To see an interactive map showing which school districts send kids to which states, go here]

What makes this kind of ironic to me is at the same time that I was doing all this research, I was also working on a story about a place in Harvey, Illinois, called Children's Habilitation Center, where the children are... it's basically like a pediatric nursing home, and the children have profound needs. They're all on feeding tubes. ventilators, a lot of them have traumatic brain injuries and severe developmental delays. The Harvey school district has disenrolled several of the kids to avoid paying for their tuition. That program is run by a woman with a PhD in special education. The teachers are all certified. That's not true for the programs in Utah — they don't necessarily have special ed teachers or certified teachers at all. This place [CHC] has a certified staff, children with profound disabilities, and nobody wants to pay for them. But we are paying for these other students to leave the state.

 Q: So Dusty, how do these kids often get to these schools?


A: Yeah, so a lot of kids arrive in Utah via a method called therapeutic transport. Kids call it kidnapping. And it's where two people come into your bedroom in the middle of the night and wake you up and have you get dressed and very quickly, they take you to the airport and put you on a plane. Of course, this is done with your parents' consent. Your parents come in and usually say something, you know, like "I love you." And then they disappear into another part of the house so that... the transporters say that it can escalate the situation if the parents stay in the room, so they have them go somewhere else. And yeah, the kids are taken that way. It seems to be for some students really traumatic. That's another thing that we, as taxpayers, are funding is this particular mode of getting kids to these out-of-state placements, especially in Utah.

Q: And not all of them do it that way. But in some cases that's what happens.

A: Well, the young adults that I interviewed said it's more common than not.

Q: You mentioned emotional disability. What does that entail?

A: It is a kind of vague term, isn't it? And I've been told that it was once called behavioral disorder. The definition on the State Board of Education website includes schizophrenia. I'm going to just read you the four things: 1) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors 2) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers 3) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances 4) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems." Which, I don't know, sound like teenagers? But the difference between just teenage angst and emotional disability is that these things have to have occurred over a long period of time, “to a degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance.”

Q: Earlier you mentioned the different states where students are placed, and quite a few in Utah, and yet the state [of Illinois] had made an effort to try to stop sending students there, but yet, that's still happening.


A: I forgot to mention that, that we pay for these placements, okay? And, I mean, it's shared among the local school district, so property taxes, plus state taxes, plus federal taxes. They each pay for a piece. And there's a workaround called unilateral placement where parents can go place the child in a private facility, and then come back to the school district and get it written into the child's IEP. An IEP, that means individualized education plan, and if your child is in special education, they have an IEP. 

What attorneys who represent school districts have told me that parents are doing this sometimes even when their child is not in special education and does not have an IEP. Parents who can front the money can go place their child out of state in a private facility, and then come back to the school district and ask to have an IEP created for their child. This can happen even if the child has never attended that school, never been in the public school. So it can be a family who's had their child in private school, and just something has happened — usually some kind of psychiatric crisis or some kind of emotional crisis — and they have determined that the child needs round-the-clock care, and that out of state would be the best place.

Q: Recently, the Chicago Tribune and Propublica partnered up on an investigation that looked into seclusion sort of rooms that were set apart, you know, where kids could almost basically be locked in  during school times. That became an issue. A lot of people have been talking about that. None of these schools seem to show up on that type of reporting?

A: The facilities featured in that investigation are all public facilities. And they have logs of seclusion because they're required to have logs of seclusion. Private facilities were not. The State Board of Education responded to that investigation by creating emergency rules. So now, the private facilities are. But these schools like the schools in Utah, I interviewed young adults who live there, and they talked about there are... they call them more like solitary confinement rooms because they've got a bed and you know, you could be there for not just hours, but days. So they definitely have seclusion. And they also have a different way of doing seclusion at these places. They do, like, a social isolation, like at Discovery Academy. If you're wearing a certain color shirt, that signals to everyone they you can't talk. They can't talk to you. They wouldn't have shown up in this report because they're private.

Q: So does anybody have an answer when it comes to this issue?

A: People who understand Evidence Based Funding — our new funding formula here in Illinois — might be familiar with a tier system. There's Tier One schools, which have less than 67% of the resources they need; and Tier Four schools have more than 100% of the resources they need. It's those two tiers that seem to be accessing these out-of-state placements the most. Tier One schools, low-income families have access to pro bono attorneys who can try to get help for kids with severe needs. And Tier Four schools, those parents have access to attorneys that they hire themselves. Attorneys seem to be kind of crucial in the process. 

There's a guy named Jim Kling, who has a service that more districts are trying to write into IEPs where ... he's a behavioral consultant. He comes to your home for a flat fee and tries to train the parents on how to deal with the students themselves, to keep them in their home instead of shipping them off.

Sean Crawford: That's Dusty Rhodes. Her series on out-of-state placements called Far From Home is online now.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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