• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
News Alert: LIVE - Memorial Day Ceremony at Ft. Richardson - Read More
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
5m 12s

Report finds abuse, neglect at Anchorage special needs elementary school

By Kirsten Swann 11:18 PM September 21, 2013

District debates claims, cites improvements

ANCHORAGE – It was a little after nine on the morning of April 29, and 5-year-old “Victor” was sitting on the floor, crying. (Editor’s note: Children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Minutes earlier, a staff member at Mt. Iliamna Elementary School had dragged the kindergarten student into one of the school’s designated “safe rooms” — bare enclosures designed to “support… students who need to recover from an unsafe event or unsafe behavior.”

Once inside, the staff member released her grip on the boy’s torso and ran for the door. Victor followed her out of the room, only to be pulled back through the tiled threshold.

The second time around, he wasn’t fast enough, and the staff member closed the safe room door before he could escape. Video cameras at the school recorded the boy sitting with his back to the door, sobbing. According to school records, he would be confined to the safe room 16 more times over the next week.

He wasn’t the only one.

Located on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Mt. Iliamna is a school for students with developmental and behavioral disabilities in kindergarten through 5th grade. Students experience a range of conditions ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to autism to bipolar disorder, and Anchorage School District officials say staff members are specially trained to work with those students.

Despite the training and strict district policies on the use of student seclusion and restraint, in November 2012 the Disability Law Center of Alaska heard allegations of a female student who had been confined to the school’s safe rooms without due cause. The center, a federally mandated advocacy group, began investigating the claims and soon discovered the incident was far from isolated.

In fact, the law center’s final report claims instances of student abuse and neglect by school staff members in several cases over the last year.

It alleges Mt. Iliamna students were kept in school safe rooms more than 850 times during the 2012-2013 school year. Ron Cowan, an investigator and legal advocate with the DLC, said this presents several issues.

“One of the problems with seclusion, besides the fact that it’s potentially traumatic to students (especially if they’ve already been traumatized by some other experience), is that they’re not able to receive the education that they’re at the school for to begin with,” Cowan said. All total, the report claims Mt. Iliamna students spent more than 40 school days in seclusion last year.

District administrators take a different view.

Linda Carlson, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, said the safe rooms are a tried and true way to calm down unruly students, providing peace and quiet and necessary physical separation. But it’s hardly the first recourse, and Carlson said staff members and teachers are trained to try alternative methods first.

“The use of seclusion is a last resort, and the same thing with restraint,” she said. “So, whenever a child is having a difficult time, we’re going to try everything we can, every other intervention prior to the use of safe rooms.”

Again, the district and the DLC disagree: According to the law center’s report, 60 Mt. Iliamna students were placed in seclusion last school year. The entire student population fluctuates around 50 to 60 students annually, and Cowan calls the practice of student seclusion widespread and systemic.

And while it affected nearly every student at the school last year, he said not every Mt. Iliamna parent knew about the school’s policies.

“I don’t think that they were aware of the scope of the use of seclusion at this school,” he said.

In some cases, parents weren’t notified about student safe room visits. In others, the visits were never even recorded in the logs mandated by the district, only captured by the video cameras monitoring the premises. Sometimes law center investigators discovered disparities between staff members’ written accounts and school surveillance video of encounters with students.

“Chuck,” an autistic seven-year-old prone to running in school, is one of those students.

Just a few days before school cameras captured Victor’s failed escape from the safe room, staff members reported an incident where an overexcited Chuck had made a break for the exit, tried to assault several teachers and ultimately been restrained in a district-approved way.

When law center investigators reviewed the videotapes, however, they saw something a little different. After the boy ran down the hallway, out the door and back into the exit area, he sits down on the floor, surrounded by the three adult staff members trying to contain him. One teacher tries to lift him from the floor, and finally picks him up under his arm as the first grader struggles to get free.

“The method employed by the teacher is not an approved restraint under any program known to the DLC,” the report concluded.

Chuck’s mother claimed the heavy bruising on her son’s forearms stemmed from that same encounter, but law center investigators were unable to substantiate her belief.

While the school district continues to prepare an in-depth response to the law center’s investigation and findings, Carlson said school employees specialize in responding to students like Chuck and Victor.

“Staff who work there have been trained in working with students with those specific needs, and we continue to update their training all the time, so they also have the latest research practices in place for those students,” she said.

In a perfunctory, two-page response letter to the report, Superintendent Ed Graff said Mt. Iliamna had improved its program through “important changes” over the past year. Specifically, he wrote, staff would benefit from further “training and supports” to ensure they were aware and in line with district policy.

Graff’s letter also questioned the accuracy of the seclusion rates cited by the law center’s investigation. “We do not agree that students attending Mt. Iliamna have been neglected or abused,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Cowan said his organization is holding a private meeting Monday to discuss its findings with concerned Mt. Iliamna parents.

 

Latest Stories

  • News

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says Denali name should remain

    by Associated Press on May 29, 10:58

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says the name for America’s tallest mountain should remain Denali. The News-Miner reports that he spoke at the Fairbanks International Airport late Saturday on his way to a Memorial Day ceremony in Denali State Park. The peak was once called Mount McKinley, named after President William McKinley. […]

  • Police: Tiger Woods arrested in Florida for DUI

    by Associated Press on May 29, 10:52

    JUPITER, Fla. (AP) – Police say golf great Tiger Woods has been arrested on a DUI charge in Florida. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office says on its website that Woods was booked into a county jail around 7 a.m. on Monday. Jail records show Woods had been arrested by police in Jupiter. He was […]

  • News

    Interior Secretary Zinke focuses on energy, parks during Alaska visit

    by Heather Hintze on May 29, 10:29

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in Alaska for his first visit to the state since his confirmation to the position in March. His first public appearance included a ride to the Alaska Veteran’s Memorial on the George Parks Highway with the Alaska Vets Motorcycle Club for their 29th annual Memorial Run. “I think it’s important on […]

  • News

    North Korea launches short-range ballistic missile, U.S. military says

    by CBS News on May 28, 19:06

    North Korea on Sunday launched a short-range ballistic missile, the U.S. Pacific Command said. The missile was tracked for six minutes until it landed in the Sea of Japan, the U.S. Pacific Command said. The White House said President Trump had been briefed on the launch. This is the ninth missile test North Korea has […]

  • Living on water: Welcome to Freedom Cove

    by CBS News on May 28, 19:02

    While many people have made a houseboat their abode, Lee Cowan has found a designing couple who’s taken the idea of waterborne living even further: Wayne Adams rarely sets a foot on dry land … not even when he makes his way home to his wife, Catherine King, because their home ebbs and flows with […]

  • The hottest pepper in the world? Beware the ‘Dragon’s Breath’

    by CBS News on May 28, 18:58

    Farmers in Wales may have the world’s hottest chili pepper on their hands, according to British media reports. Mike Smith reportedly grew a chili pepper that smashes all previous heat records — all by accident. Smith said he never intended to breed a particularly spicy pepper and he doesn’t even like foods with heat, The […]

  • News

    Alcohol suspected in serious Seward Highway crash

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on May 28, 16:06

    The Seward Highway was completely closed in both directions for about five hours overnight following a crash at mile 76 near Portage Glacier Road. The crash occurred sometime just before 11 p.m. and the road finally reopened to traffic around 4 a.m. Anchorage Police say a northbound BMW crossed over into the oncoming traffic late […]

  • News

    1 dead in head-on Glenn Highway collision

    by KTVA Web Staff on May 28, 15:59

    The Anchorage Police Department’s Traffic Unit is trying to determine what caused an SUV to lose control and cause a fatal crash Saturday. About 15 minutes after midnight Saturday morning, APD says a Chevy Suburban inbound on the Glenn Highway lost control, crossed the center median and struck a Ford Focus head-on. The driver of […]