California Attorney General Kamala Harris has launched an investigation into the use of harsh discipline – including physical restraints and isolation – on students with disabilities who attend publicly funded private special education schools, EdSource has learned.
The Attorney General’s Office has issued at least one subpoena seeking documents related to “the use of restraints, seclusion or punishment at Tobinworld,” which operates six private special education schools in California, in “the matter of the investigation of nonpublic schools.” “Nonpublic schools” is the technical term for private special education schools that receive district, state and federal funds to educate students that school districts say they cannot adequately serve.
EdSource obtained a copy of the subpoena but is not naming the recipient, who was ordered to testify Thursday, because the person fears Tobinworld officials might retaliate.
The office of the attorney general declined to comment. “We can’t comment on any ongoing or potential investigation, in order to protect the integrity of any investigation,” said Rachele Huennekens, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
“Tobinworld has been contacted by the Office of the Attorney General about an administrative review and is fully cooperating,” according to a statement from Tobinworld, a nonprofit organization based in Glendale.
“It can be difficult for private parties to bring cases,” said Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s why it’s so important we have a public prosecutor.”
The investigation is believed to be the first time that a state or federal prosecutor has scrutinized private schools that market themselves to school districts as experts in the behavior of students with emotional disorders, autism and intellectual disabilities.
“We need a bright light shined on these schools,” said Barb Trader, executive director of TASH, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for non-physical behavior management approaches in lieu of restraint and seclusion practices.
Diane Smith Howard, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, an organization of federally mandated state oversight agencies, said she was unaware of any other investigation of this scope. She said she had no knowledge of the California investigation but that such an inquiry would be “tremendously positive.”
More than 330 private special education schools operate in California under contract with school districts from every part of the state.
According to data from the California Department of Education and analyzed by the watchdog group Disability Rights California, private special education schools report the state’s highest number of restraint and seclusion incidents, which involve physically restraining special education students or isolating them in rooms they can’t leave, known as seclusion. In 2011-12, the last year data were collected, 364 private schools educated about 2 percent of the special education students in California, but they filed 66 percent of the behavioral emergency reports, according to the education department. The reports document emergency procedures, the most common of which is the use of restraint and seclusion to control students. Under the California Education Code, restraint and seclusion are to be used only as measures of last resort when a student’s behavior poses a serious risk of harm to self or others.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been conducting its own inquiry into the use of restraint and seclusion on special education students nationwide, applauded the attorney general’s investigation as a necessary government intervention in an arena where many parents feel they have no recourse.
Because private special education schools are often placements of last resort for students, parents and guardians can be reluctant to take legal action against a school, even if they believe their child is being traumatized by repeated physical restraints, for fear the child will not be able to enroll anywhere else, said Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It can be difficult for private parties to bring cases,” Mizner said. “That’s why it’s so important we have a public prosecutor.”
The California Department of Education is charged with overseeing private special education schools that receive public funding, and some oversight is charged as well to regional special education plan areas and local school districts. Prompted by a citizen complaint in October 2014, the California Department of Education suspended certification for Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III in Antioch in August last year. Among the violations cited was that Matthew Israel, a psychologist who founded a Massachusetts special education school that uses electric skin shocks to control student behavior and who is the husband of Tobinworld executive director Judy Weber, was working at Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III without being listed on state certification forms, as required by the California Education Code. The violations were rectified and certifications for the schools were approved in December. (Links to the letters are here and here.)
A few weeks later, a video was released of a 9-year-old boy in special education at Tobinworld II being held aloft as a teacher’s aide slapped his face and onlookers laughed. On Jan. 15, three legal advocacy groups – the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights California and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund – issued a demand letter to the California Department of Education calling on the state to take action to eliminate the improper use of force on students with disabilities in classrooms across the state.
The department responded in March with a letter stating that it had investigated complaints and corrective actions had been taken.
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