District says special-ed school restrained students, moves to revoke license

April 27, 2011

D.C. officials announced Wednesday that they intend to revoke the operating license of a Northwest special education school for violations that include staff members improperly restraining students for offenses as minor as throwing candy and leaving the cafeteria without permission.

The report also noted instances of “prone restraint,” in which students were held face down on their stomachs against the floor, possibly causing facial injuries.

In a 27-page report, officials said Rock Creek Academy on upper Connecticut Avenue has also failed to deliver therapy prescribed for students and has kept inaccurate attendance records that masked high rates of absenteeism. The school charges the city more than $50,000 in annual tuition for each of its 163 emotionally and physically disabled children.

“I would say we certainly found a disturbing level and high volume of noncompliance,” said Tameria Lewis, assistant state superintendent for special education, whose office spent nearly a year investigating the school.

Lewis said Rock Creek has 30 days to appeal her office’s recommendation that the school lose its “certificate of approval” to operate. The appeal would be heard by a panel appointed by D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley, who personally delivered the report to Rock Creek officials Wednesday afternoon.

Shawn Meade, the school’s president and chief executive, did not respond to e-mail and phone messages Wednesday evening.

When D.C. officials confirmed the investigation in March, he said that the school had done its best to serve a population of children from kindergarten through 12th grade whose needs cannot be met by the city’s public schools. Students at Rock Creek have been diagnosed with emotional disabilities, mental retardation, learning disabilities, speech and hearing impairments and post-traumatic stress.

“We continue to make progress academically, socially and emotionally with our students,” Meade said in March. “The data proves it. My staff is insulted by the allegations out there.”

The action against Rock Creek is the product of an effort by the District to stiffen regulatory scrutiny of private special education schools, which treat about 2,800 students at an annual cost to taxpayers of about $280 million. Under federal law, parents can sue the city for private placement if they believe it cannot serve a child’s needs in a regular public or public charter school.

But officials say the quality of the services delivered is uneven. Last year, the city ordered the shuttering of SunRise Academy in Northwest Washington.

D.C. regulations prohibit staff members from physically restraining special education students unless they pose a serious danger to themselves or others. The study said a review of 264 incident reports revealed that Rock Creek staff members were restraining students as a form of punishment for minor transgressions.

“Based on Rock Creek Academy’s permissive use of restraints, [the District] concludes that the environment for children at the school is unsafe,” the report said.

The school also improperly used seclusion for punitive purposes, the report said, isolating some students for most of the school day. Regulations limit such measures to one hour.

The report said that D.C. officials found significant gaps in the hours of “related services” (such as speech, physical and psychotherapy) prescribed for students and the services actually delivered. In October, for example, Rock Creek documented just 8.5 hours of related services for students, while they had actually been prescribed more than 1,500 hours.

Officials also reported a chaotic and indifferent atmosphere at the school during their site visits, with students roaming the halls with apparent impunity. One teacher was observed filling out a crossword puzzle while students in his classroom were drawing pictures, texting and engaging in other non-educational activities.

turqueb@washpost.com

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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