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Were Rock Creek kids ill-served by DCPS?

In the recent report on Rock Creek Academy from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, there’s a section titled “Seclusion of Student E.W.” It is not pretty.

E.W. — that’s how he is identified in the report — is an 8-year-old diagnosed with trauma and post-traumatic stress whom the District placed at Rock Creek.. That’s the private special education school in upper Northwest closed by OSSE earlier this month after an investigation revealed a thicket of problems, including staff members who improperly restrained or isolated students.

On May 23, according to a Rock Creek employee who came forward to OSSE, E.W. arrived at school without his medication, leaving him “running around aimlessly, knocking over chairs and books, and hitting the wall.” He was placed in a 5-by-5-feet “isolation room,” where for the first five minutes he was “highly escalated, kicking walls and jumping around the room.” Five minutes later the lights were turned off, first for about two to three seconds, then again for about two minutes.

“When the lights were turned back on, the student was sucking [his] thumb and alternated between a fetal position and a seated position against the door. Instead of being removed, he was kept in the room for 41 minutes, said the employee, who viewed a videotape of the incident that was later obtained by OSSE. There was no evidence on the tape that any senior personnel were monitoring his seclusion, as required by District regulations, the report said.

OSSE says the regulations also prohibit the use of seclusion unless there is an imminent threat to the safety of the student or others. Former Rock Creek executive director Shawn Meade could not be reached for comment this week. He said in an Aug. 8 letter to parents announcing the school’s closing that OSSE’s actions are based on “erroneous conclusions” and that the agency had “repeatedly rebuffed our efforts to address any of their concerns and build a better program.”

OSSE officials said they are still considering whether to refer any of the incidents for criminal prosecution.

But what’s especially disturbing about E.W.’s story is that it is one of several incidents that took place after OSSE released an initial report in April flagging the school for mistreatment and announcing its intention to close it. They include at least two other incidents of improper seclusions and the use of “prone restraint” in which students were held face down, with stomach and chin on the floor. D.C. regulations prohibit the use of prone restraint under any circumstances.

All but one of the 123 students in the school were placed there by D.C. Public Schools, each at a cost of about $50,000 a year, after it was determined that their needs could not be met in the city school system. Although they were attending Rock Creek, they remained DCPS’s responsibility. “Progress monitors” employed by the school system were supposedly there much of the time.

So, the question is: Did DCPS do everything it could to protect the Rock Creek kids, especially after OSSE began moving to close the school?

In the July report, OSSE added to its case against Rock Creek, but also found DCPS in “non-compliance”with state laws. Those laws require that District officials convene a meeting immediately after any incident of seclusion to review the student’s IEP, or Individualized Education Program — the document outlining special services to which the student is entitled. That didn’t happen in the case of E.W.

Dr. Nathaniel Beers, DCPS chief of special education, who had just taken the job when the incident occurred, did not return a call or e-mail requesting comment. Amy Maisterra, OSSE’s interim assistant superintendent for special education, said that despite the technical finding of non-compliance, the school system did the best that it could, given the circumstances. It was a week before Rock Creek informed DCPS of E.W.’s seclusion, the July report said. At the same time, as a result of the initial April report, DCPS was also conducting reviews of all other Rock Creek students.

“We’re all responsible for making sure these children are safe and their academic and social needs supported,” Maisterra said, adding that DCPS faced “a very condensed time frame to respond given the number of students it had there.”

Rock Creek officials were scheduled to appear at an Aug. 9 hearing before an OSSE panel to appeal the closure decision. But on the day before the hearing, they informed parents that the school would close.

“I don’t want to put the Academy’s fate in the hands of a hearing panel — which is supposed to be independent but whose members are OSSE employees,” Meade wrote.

The 122 DCPS students at Rock Creek have received new placements, according to Maisterra’s office. Thirty-one will attend other non-public schools such as Kingsbury, High Road and The Children’s Guild; three will go to public charter schools (Cesar Chavez, Capitol City and Perry Street Prep, and about half will return to DCPS (Shaw@ Garnet-Patterson, Phelps and Coolidge) for programs operated by Spectrum, a private firm that specializes in treating disabled students.

“Rock Creek Academy has grave concerns as to whether DCPS, which was already determined at evidentiary hearings to be unable to provide adequate services to these students, is now able to address their needs,” Meade wrote in his Aug. 8 letter to parents.

Given the conditions it found, OSSE had even graver concerns about keeping the students at Rock Creek.

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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