Editor’s note: We agreed to anonymity for the families in order to protect the safety and privacy of the minors involved.
GARDEN VALLEY — The Garden Valley School District has repeatedly violated a federal law that requires children with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate public education, according to two reports from the State Department of Education.
Two families with children with special needs who are enrolled in the district filed separate, formal complaints in September, alleging multiple district violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The State Department investigated and found that all of the allegations — 11 combined — were founded and the district was out of compliance, according to reports provided to the parents. EdNews obtained the reports from the families.
The state investigation calls out the district for a number of inappropriate practices, including:
- Frequently secluding a student in a padded room that was formerly a utility closet
- Failing to adequately train staff
- Keeping a student out of school for 10 days or more without following the appropriate procedures and protocols
- Inappropriately relying on a school resource officer to manage special education student behavior
- Stifling parent participation in creating a learning plan for their student
- Providing little to no direct instruction for a student, and instead relying on an online program
- Failing to adopt the state’s special education manual or a restraint and seclusion policy
In both cases, the state investigator, Courtney Wucetich, established a plan that the district must adhere to to remedy its failures, which includes:
- Properly training staff, then implementing the training
- Adopting the state’s special education manual and restraint and seclusion policy
- Holding special education meetings, and developing and creating needed special education plans
- Developing a plan to provide compensatory services for the students (such as therapy, counseling, etc.)
- Paying for an impartial school psychologist assigned by the State Department
For the families involved, both of whom asked to remain anonymous out of fears of retaliation, the reports came as no surprise.
“It just confirmed what we already knew,” said the parent of a 15-year-old student with special needs, who will be referred to as Student A. “It’s just one more step in the process of cleaning up the district.”
The second report was filed by the parents of a nine-year-old with autism, who will be referred to as Student B. One of Student B’s parents said he was disheartened by the report.
“It breaks my heart because now I understand why (my student is) so traumatized about school,” he said. “(My student is) truly scared of going to school and that’s not something any kid should fear, for any reason whatsoever.”
Both families have also filed formal complaints with the Office of Civil Rights. One is being actively investigated, and the other is being reviewed for possible investigation.
Patrick Goff, the Garden Valley superintendent, said he had no comment.
The investigations, which came to light in part via social media posts shared by Student B’s family, have riled the Garden Valley community. Some said they have similar concerns about the district’s treatment of their special education students. Others defended and praised the district.
Both families are hoping the investigations will lead to improved and fair education opportunities for their children, and for special education students to come.
“At the end of the day, what I want from all this is simple: for this to be exposed so that no more kids get hurt,” one of Student B’s parents said.
Locked alone in a padded room: Student B’s education was repeatedly mishandled, investigation concludes
Demystifying Jargon: Individualized Education Plan
-An IEP identifies a student’s needs and includes specific, measurable goals to “enable the student to make adequate progress in the general education curriculum.” The plan must include “a variety of assessment tools and strategies, including information provided by the parent, to identify the functional, developmental, and academic needs of the student.”
-A team (which could include general education teachers, special education teachers, counselors, administrators, a school psychologist, parents, and the student) meets periodically to develop, review, and revise the plan.
The district’s failures to educate and provide services to Student B were wide-ranging, according to the report, and included:
Not having a current Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student with special needs
- The district also failed to properly review and revise the plan as needed. Progress reports were also not included in the plan.
- “The District failed to develop an appropriate IEP with measurable goals and failed to identify needed related services,” according to the report.
Substantial deviations from the IEP that was in place
- For example, the plan called for the student to be in a general education classroom 100% of the school day. Instead, the student was in the extended resource room or a padded isolation room for most of the day.
Using restraint and seclusion to manage student behavior, instead of positive interventions and supports, and without the IEP team determining that such placement was the best for the student. Further, the district continued the practice even when the student and parents told the district about its negative impacts.
- This involved the student being placed alone in a padded room “for undocumented periods of time, and for unknown frequency,” with “very little interaction with peers”.
- “Although emails from the parents reflected that the Student was terrified of school, terrified of the self-contained classroom, and that the use of the self-contained room caused harm to the Student, this information was not considered by the District.”
- Staff members would “carry” the student to the padded room, a form of restraint.
- The district also lacked a policy on restraint and seclusion.
- The district used restraint and seclusion “as a punitive measure, or out of convenience” rather than as a last resort.
Inappropriate use of the School Resource Officer (SRO)
- Federal law does not prohibit a district “from referring a student to law enforcement for alleged criminal behavior,” according to the report. However, a district should not refer students to the SRO in order to “circumvent its obligation to consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports and other strategies to address a student’s behavior that impedes the student’s learning, or the learning of others.”
Paraprofessionals were not adequately trained and supervised
- The paraprofessionals “engaged in power struggles with the Student,” according to the report.
- There was no record that these staff members received training on how to use positive behavioral interventions and strategies.
- Staff members did not use de-escalation strategies, teach coping skills, or redirect misbehavior.
- The paraprofessional was also not trained to objectively collect data, and instead judged the student’s behavior.
Staff regularly used inappropriate techniques to manage student behavior
- These included restraint and seclusion and the use of the SRO “which are not appropriate,” the report found.
- “A staff member who restrained and secluded the Student on multiple occasions did not participate in the District’s in-service training, as evidenced by a lack of a training certificate in the file.”
- “The means by which the paraprofessional staff restrained and secluded the Student, by carrying them and locking them in the self-contained classroom with unknown frequency and duration, is not consistent with an appropriate use of PBIS.”
Removing the student from school for more than 10 school days, without the appropriate protocol being followed
- The student was frequently removed from school, either formally via suspensions or informally by school staff asking parents to pick up their student.
- When students are removed from school for more than 10 days, the district must follow a set of procedures and protocol called a Manifest Determination. The district did not do so.
- “Hundreds of pages of email exchanges provided by both the parents and the District reflect that the frequency of informal removals, coupled with formal suspensions, exceeded a cumulative ten school days,” according to the report.
“The lack of resources is not a defense”: How the district failed Student A
According to Student A’s report, four allegations put forward by the family were founded. They included violations such as:
- The plans designed for the student were inadequate and did not meet the student’s needs. This includes a failure to provide the student with “specially designed instruction,” discuss or offer related services, and limited involvement/input from the school psychologist.
- The district “did not use a variety of assessment tools and strategies, including information provided by the parent, to identify the functional, developmental, and academic needs of the student in the development, review, and revision of the IEP.”
The district primarily relied on an online program for the student’s instruction in the 22-23 school year
- Last school year, “there was little to no direct instruction provided to the Student. Instead the District relied almost exclusively on MobyMax for the majority” of the year.
- Student A’s parents confirmed this with EdNews, and said their student had been learning primarily from home since August 2022. Their student was originally learning from an online program, and is now using paper packets and meets with a teacher two hours a day at the local library.
Failures are partly due to lack of resources — but that’s not an excuse
- The failure to provide services is partly due to a lack of resources, the investigator found. “However, the lack of resources is not a defense to the District’s failure.”
Student A’s progress reports were lacking
- Progress reports did not indicate how Student A was progressing toward annual IEP goals.
Parental participation was stifled
- Federal law mandates that parents have a central role in developing IEPs. However, the state investigator found that “parental participation was stifled in all decisions related to the Student’s IEP development, including placement.” The district essentially determined the plan before consulting parents.
Moving forward: Next steps for the families
Both families see the corrective action plan outlined in the investigation as a step forward. But both hope the complaints to the Office of Civil Rights (one of which is being reviewed for possible investigation; the other is being actively investigated) will result in more stringent outcomes for the district officials involved.
One of Student B’s parents said he felt compelled to file the complaints to fight for his child, and to hold staff members accountable for what they’d done.
“Sometimes someone has to take a stand and say when something’s not right,” one of Student B’s parents said.
But even with the corrective action plan in place, Student B’s family hopes to move out of state, to a place with more resources for their child. The family moved to Garden Valley a few years ago from the Boise area.
But Student A’s family has long lived in Garden Valley and intends to stay there.
“I grew up in the area and so I’m not going to let the good old boys’ club push me out,” one of Student A’s parents said.
Ultimately he hopes the investigation will result in his student being able to return to school, where the student can interact with peers again.
“We have been pushing from day one to get him back into school.”