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March 2, 2024

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WA special education school accused of abuse is closing amid scrutiny

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This story was produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

Northwest School of Innovative Learning, until recently Washington’s largest publicly funded private school for children with disabilities, announced plans to close amid a state investigation and a ban on accepting new students.

The school drew state scrutiny after a 2022 Seattle Times and ProPublica series revealed accusations that staff injured vulnerable students and failed to provide a basic education. The school’s enrollment has since plummeted as public school districts across Western Washington withdrew students.

Special education advocates and experts applauded the closure of Northwest SOIL but said it also highlights the need for better special education options.

“I think this is a victory for children with complex behavioral disorders in Washington state,” said Vanessa Tucker, professor of special education at Pacific Lutheran University. “On the other hand, our school districts are going to need a lot of support because these kids aren’t easy.”

The school’s owners have defended its record but said it has ceased to be viable in the wake of the state’s hold on new admissions.

Reporting by The Times and ProPublica late last year brought to light allegations of abuse, misuse of isolation rooms and unqualified staffing. The reporting triggered the state probe into Northwest SOIL, which collected millions of tax dollars a year to take in students from public school districts across Western Washington on the promise of individualized instruction and specialized staff. In years past, the school took in more than 100 students a year.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington’s education department, temporarily banned Northwest SOIL from enrolling new students in June, citing an “unacceptably high” number of incidents in which it restrained and isolated students.

Last week, the school’s owner, Fairfax Behavioral Health, which runs the largest for-profit psychiatric facility in the state, said it could no longer operate the school under the state admissions ban. Fairfax plans to close the school in January and lay off staff, according to a company statement. School districts will decide where to transfer Northwest SOIL’s remaining 37 students.

“The low student number is not sustainable for the school or rewarding for our teachers,” according to a statement provided by Fairfax CEO Christopher West. Students need more diverse interactions with peers for social development, the statement said.

Northwest SOIL said it had requested that the state allow it to gradually admit new students while it complied with a corrective action plan but that regulators with the superintendent’s office decided not to lift the ban.

“While NW SOIL continues to make adequate initial progress, not enough time has passed for OSPI to see sustained implementation of the plan in order to release the enrollment hold,” state superintendent spokesperson Katy Payne told The Times and ProPublica.

Years of complaints

The news organizations’ investigation into Northwest SOIL revealed how the state superintendent’s office failed to take meaningful actions on years of serious complaints about the school’s discipline and academics. In response, lawmakers passed a bill in April strengthening oversight and regulatory power.

And the superintendent’s office began to more aggressively use its existing power, launching the inquiry that looked at a range of issues, including allegations against staff of “mistreatment and abuse” of students, calls to law enforcement on students, and complaints that the school failed to deliver special education services.

As part of that investigation, Northwest SOIL provided records to the state showing it restrained students 476 times in 2022 and isolated students 447 times across its three campuses. It had roughly 119 students at the time, according to state reports.

By comparison, Seattle Public Schools, the largest district in the state with more than 6,000 students in special education, reported 16 incidents of isolation and 249 incidents of restraint in the 2021-22 school year. Seattle Public Schools banned isolation at the beginning of that school year.

Northwest SOIL “has been restraining its students at an astronomical rate,” a lawyer for the state superintendent told a judge in September.

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During the investigation, the superintendent’s office zeroed in on concerning reports to police and Child Protective Services that hadn’t been reported to state education officials, as required by state law. Among them was a July 2022 incident when a teacher at the Tacoma campus was fired after placing a student in a “chokehold” and “running his head into the door,” as described by the school.

Northwest SOIL wrote that its risk management team reviewed several incidents and found them to be either accidental or justified and that they happened while students were behaving aggressively.

“We believe our staff members act appropriately during incidents or restraint and isolation,” the school wrote to state regulators in June, when the ban on admissions was imposed.

Northwest SOIL and its parent company, Kirkland-based Fairfax Behavioral Health, tried to get the admissions ban overturned, suing the state in Thurston County Superior Court and separately appealing the ban through an administrative hearing. The lawsuit was dismissed in October, and the administrative appeal remains active.

West, Fairfax’s CEO, blasted the state’s admissions hold in a letter to regulators in early November.

“It is unwarranted and egregious to continue withholding the services we offer from students,” West wrote. He said the school was cooperating with the state’s investigation.

Northwest SOIL was previously financially sound, he continued, but because of the admissions ban, “NWSOIL simply cannot operate indefinitely with ongoing financial losses.”

West gave the state an ultimatum: Lift the hold by Nov. 10 or Northwest SOIL would close. The state declined.

Fallout

The news of the closure has sent parents scrambling. For some families that remained at the school, Northwest SOIL has been a positive influence in their students’ lives.

Heidi Sapp’s 16-year-old son, Brendan, has attended Northwest SOIL for three years. She contacted reporters at the suggestion of Northwest SOIL and previously provided an affidavit in support of the school’s lawsuit against the state.

Sapp’s son, who has autism, has behavioral challenges and suffered setbacks in public schools but flourished at Northwest SOIL, she said. She now worries the closure will disrupt his education.

“I don’t feel like I have any options left,” Sapp said.

The closure of Northwest SOIL renews an ongoing debate within the special education community about the role of private programs serving public school students. Washington has one of the nation’s highest dropout rates for students in special education, according to the latest federal data.

Some advocates say private programs are needed because public schools routinely fail students with severe and complex disabilities. Others say public school districts need to invest more in integrated programs that keep students in local public schools.

Karen Pillar, director of policy and advocacy at TeamChild, a nonprofit law firm for Washington at-risk youth, sees Northwest SOIL’s closure as an opportunity for school districts to explore in-house alternatives. In December 2022, Pillar and two special education attorneys wrote an opinion column for The Times calling on the state to immediately shut down Northwest SOIL.

As public school districts decide where to transfer Northwest SOIL’s students, districts should hire trained staff and create programs that would keep students in neighborhood schools, Pillar said.

Her fear is that districts will fall back on “harmful practices” such as shortened school days or the use of restraint and isolation of students with disabilities.

“There are systems and strategies to keep students, including high-needs students, in public school classrooms safely,” Pillar said. “The districts have to invest in that.”

Tucker, the Pacific Lutheran University professor, said school districts will go through a period of adjustment as they either develop plans to serve students themselves or work with other private programs.

“They’re all having to create models for these kids that are truly complex. It’s not like we’re saying, ‘Let’s put them back in the school and everything will be fine,’” Tucker said. “These are kids with complex neurological impairments, some with trauma, some with mental health needs. It is a very complicated puzzle to put together.”

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