A special kind of crisis: Civil rights complaints allege neglect of special needs students in Utah schools

Home Education A special kind of crisis: Civil rights complaints allege neglect of special needs students in Utah schools
A special kind of crisis: Civil rights complaints allege neglect of special needs students in Utah schools
(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Is Utah’s education system leaving special-ed students behind? Some believe schools are putting the institutions’ priorities above those in families that are in crisis.

The following was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune

Stacy Bankhead has gathered over a dozen thick binders full of documents — report cards, educational assessments, police reports and more — that she says chronicle a decade of the Provo School District’s neglect of the special needs of her son Hunter.
Now 18, Hunter was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and later with other behavioral and learning issues such as bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder. He’s consulted with school therapists since age 7.

Stacy Bankhead doesn’t need to search her stack to go right to the records of Hunter’s multiple threats of suicide that were kept from her by school officials, or to documents related to the time a group of bullies sexually harassed him.

Bankhead is a single mother who thought she had hardened herself against such failures of the system but was shocked anew reading a book titled “Your Special Education Rights,” which referenced another student who struggled to receive adequate special-needs care. That student was Adam Lanza, the bullied youngster who, at age 20, killed 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, before turning the gun on himself.

(Courtesy Stacy Bankhead) Stacy Bankhead, center, and her 18-year-old son Hunter, left, pose for a family picture with Bankhead’s eldest son, Dayton, and daughter, Ashley.

As Bankhead realized that the rushed path Hunter was on to move him up and out of school was similar to that of Lanza’s experience, she put down the book and cried.

Perhaps she was imagining the unimaginable, but her own son had, after a school fight in 2014, described himself in a medical staff evaluation as a “hand grenade…. If I am pushed around, I will explode.” He listed his brother and teachers at school as antagonists and acknowledged suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

“I have a monster in my head and I have no control,” Hunter told staff, according to the evaluation.

The prospect of a Utah student resorting to violence against others is disturbing, if rare — extremely rare when compared to documented self-inflicted violence. Last year, there were 42 suicides in Utah among youths ages 10 to 17, quadruple the number a decade earlier.

Bankhead felt as though she was alone in a constant battle to get the school district to meet its obligations to provide what federal law requires: a fair and appropriate public education. That means students with special needs must have individualized education plans with the school district to help guide them through.

In Hunter’s case, the Provo School District went through 13 of these individualized plans in his last 15 months enrolled there and, says Bankhead, it did not fulfill any of them.

While her son got in fights at school and was wracked by anxiety, worry and voices in his head, he was also a bright and charming boy simply in need of help. After his suicide attempt, and once stabilized at the state hospital, a doctor noted that Hunter had three life goals: “1. To cure cancer. 2. To cure all illnesses. 3. To go to Tony Stark’s house.”

Sticks and stones; bullets and words

Leaders of the Utah School Safety Commission at the state Board of Education have found themselves addressing an old problem with new urgency. Given the epidemic of teen suicides and the all-too-frequent headlines around the country about mass school shootings, the commission has been looking at safety in Utah classrooms on two fronts — the physical layout of schools and the mental health of students.

The commission will pitch lawmakers in the upcoming session on $160 million in one-time spending for construction and facility improvements at state schools and $30 million in annual, ongoing appropriations for the hiring of mental-health professionals. The governor, in his recommended budget, supported $50.5 million in new funding to support counseling, mental health and other needs in public schools.,

Currently, the Utah State Office of Education requires a ratio of 350 students to one counselor. Districts that can’t meet the standard must design plans to come into compliance.

For the 2017-2018 school year, 23.64 secondary licensed school counselors were needed statewide, up from 18.54 the previous year. A state report also noted that 14 of the local education agencies that needed to come up with a compliance plan also had to design a plan the previous year.

Provo School District, where Bankhead’s son received most of his schooling, was one of just four local education agencies that had failed to provide an adequate student-to-counselor ratio plan every year since 2014.

Christy Walker, a safety specialist with the School Safety Commission, says reforms on the mental-health side will be about improving threat-assessment teams and implementing them at schools that don’t already have them. These groups generally include a school administrator, counselor, and perhaps a school resource officer who focuses on behavioral needs of students. A number of school districts already have support teams that concentrate more on academics, but training staff to also look for behavioral red flags will help get interventions to troubled students.

“In a lot of instances where bad things have happened in a school a lot of parties knew something,” Walker says, “but they just weren’t communicating.”

While Walker is a strong proponent of these assessment teams, she says they go hand in hand with physical facility improvements, such as surveillance cameras.

“If I’m [a student] getting picked on by bullies, I know they’re going to catch it on camera,” Walker says. “So there’s a sense of mental security and emotional security.”

Leah Voorhies is a Utah State Board of Education student support supervisor who also serves on the commission. Asked about complaints of inadequate special-education services that can often involve students with unmet behavioral needs, Voorhies was quick to point out that this issue is already adequately covered by federal law.

“Special-education has the most defined procedures,” she says, “because they are mandated by federal law.”

But for some Utah families, the current structure sets up a double whammy: long waits for a slow-moving federal bureaucracy to resolve problems arising out of a local system that is underfunded and sometimes marred by poorly trained educators.


(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)


Civil-rights complaints

Over the past decade, 85 complaints alleging special-education violations have been filed against Utah public schools, K-12, with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The top targets for these complaints were Davis at 12 and Jordan at 10. Tooele School District racked up seven.

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project also obtained records summarizing the resolution of complaints lodged over the past five years.

Of 20 cases investigated, 11 ended in settlements that resulted in new staff training at school districts and, sometimes, cash settlements to aggrieved families.

Among the cases:

• A 2017 payment of $18,500 to a family whose student was allegedly subjected to teacher harassment based on a disability in the Alpine School District. Additionally, the teacher was transferred to a different school, new staff training was done and an assembly was held. The district did not respond to a request for comment.

• Also last year, the Salt Lake City School District agreed to conduct districtwide training to resolve a complaint against Highland High.

• In 2015, a discrimination complaint against the Murray School District resulted in a student being allowed to graduate and a requirement placed on the school that the student be allowed to take his or her medication and not be discriminated against based on the side effects of the medication.

While settlements appeared to bring some relief to families in most of the resolved investigations from the past five years, others seemed to drag on until it was too late to do anything for the families.

In the summer of 2013, parents in the Tooele School District alleged their disabled son had been physically bullied by a teacher’s aide that security camera footage showed “physically removing the Student from the room with his hand gripping the Student’s arm and the Student then falling across the hall and into the lockers after the paraprofessional released the grip.” The teacher’s aide claimed that the student tripped himself.

Later that year, the parents complained that another student witnessed a separate incident in which the same aide “had grabbed a hold of the Student and shook him at an assembly and, on another occasion, had told him that the Student was a bad kid.”

The school’s principal stated that he didn’t have enough information to conclude that the aide had bullied a student, according to the federal report, “because he had a student giving one side of the story and a staff member giving a contradictory version.”

Still, the district voluntarily offered to have administrators and special-education staff conduct in-service training, and to have a special teacher work with the student and report progress weekly to the parents. The district said it met that goal, while the parents said the updates didn’t happen.

Ultimately, the case was officially resolved in February 2015, two years from the first incident, because the family had decided to move out of state.

Tooele School District spokesperson Marie Denson says in general the district has been making a lot of strides.

“The current Special Education Director took over in the spring of 2014 and has made it his goal to turn the program around,” Denson wrote in an email. “The quality of social and emotional learning services has improved dramatically since 2014.”

Denson says the district has increased trainings; now has nine psychologists, up from just two; and has added five more elementary school counselors. It also has adopted less punitive suspension practices and has secured grant funding to help refer students to outside agencies for mental-health care as needed.

Davis School District did not respond to a request for comment about complaints against it.

Jordan District spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf says Jordan takes the issue seriously and pointed out that the vast majority of the complaints brought against it were denied by federal investigators. Kim Lloyd, the special education director for the district, says that, in recent years, Jordan has been able to ensure school psychiatrists are at every one of its elementary and secondary schools. The district also has a threat-assessment team and an administrator with staff designated just to address behavioral needs for special-education students.

Red flags

Stacy Bankhead filed her first complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights in 2016 after she said she learned that her son — then in a special-education class at Oak Springs School, the education unit of the Utah State Hospital — was spending hours playing Monopoly instead of receiving instruction. She also discovered that the class was taught by a student aide who lacked the required special-education certificate.

The federal agency agreed with her allegations. By then, six months after the complaint was lodged, her son already had aged out of the grade and the class in question. No action was taken.

Through that complaint process, however, Bankhead gained access for the first time to documents from the Provo School District that documented Hunter had twice made suicidal threats. These threats, made to a school psychologist, are required by law to be immediately reported to parents.

The Provo School District has declined comment on the matter, citing student privacy concerns. The district also would not comment on any efforts it has made in improving behavioral health practices. Bankhead recently dropped the matter because she has moved out of state.

The records Bankhead belatedly got access to were a psychologist’s logs. They showed Hunter’s first suicide report in 2013, when he was upset about being forced to complete most of his schooling at a special-education facility rather than at a traditional middle school.

The other report was from November 2014 after Hunter got in a fight with several bullies, some with whom he had had a previous run-in. During summer school that year at Centennial Middle School, he reported three bullies pushed him against a bookshelf and performed a simulated sex act two days in a row despite being expelled after the first incident.

As a result of the fight, Hunter was disciplined and expelled. His threat of suicide, reported to the school psychologist but never communicated to Bankhead, was followed a few days later by Hunter smashing a toy and holding its jagged pieces to his neck as he threatened to cut his throat.

Bankhead was able to talk him down and got him stabilized and admitted to the state hospital. In a December 10, 2014, medical evaluation, a doctor summarized Hunter’s history and also his support from the school district. The report noted Hunter’s special-education “services have been greatly diminished. He is down to one special-education class. He continues to have trouble with homework and is easily stressed and overwhelmed.”

‘At what cost?’

Bankhead’s problems with the education system continued when Hunter was released from the hospital only to find out he was attending school with one of his former assailants. She later removed her son from the school and demanded that the district pay for Hunter to be educated in a secure residential treatment facility. The costly request ultimately led to a new civil-rights complaint that Bankhead says was delayed repeatedly for more than six months without resolution.

Eventually, Bankhead sold her Provo home and moved to Hawaii.

State education officials there reviewed her documentation from multiple specialists on Hunter’s needs and promptly agreed to pay for residential treatment. Ironically, he was placed in a treatment facility in southern Utah.

In the end, Bankhead uprooted her life to get care for Hunter, only regretting that she stayed in Utah as long as she did. She sees the special-education funding in the state stretched far too thin to protect the most vulnerable students. As far as the student safety proposals headed to the Utah Legislature, she strongly believes resources and emphasis should go toward beefing up behavioral staff over physical improvements.

Rep. Ray Ward is a Bountiful Republican and physician who is sponsoring the school safety legislation. He understands the tens of millions of dollars sought are going to be a big ask, but he also recognizes the enormity of the concern.

“Mass shootings frighten all of us,” Ward says. “But worse than that we lose about 45 kids a year to suicide. That is an ongoing scourge that should really take more of our attention.”

The sticker shock became apparent early on when Ward presented the bill during a Public Education Interim Committee in November. Rep. Derrin Owens, a Fountain Green Republican and high school counselor, challenged the proposal as one that would divert precious funding from more pressing education needs.

“We can’t fix every ill in our society,” Owens said. “Where do we draw the line and say we can only do so much?”

For Bankhead, it seems unlikely Utah will change its approach of school districts dealing with special-education complaints and student mental-health issues through delays and empty promises and just hoping the problem goes away.

“All Utah cares about is saying to the public that they’re fiscally responsible — but at what cost?” she asks. “You’re not supposed to be literally killing kids by being fiscally responsible.”

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.

Eric S. Peterson is the founder and a director of the nonprofit Utah Investigative Journalism Project.

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