Washington is sending more students with disabilities out of state
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Toby, a Northshore School District parent who asked not to release his last name to protect his daughter’s privacy, said expelling his daughter “saved her life.” She suffered significant trauma as a child, Toby says, and during her teenage years displayed severely disruptive behavior both at school and at home.
Toby feared risking harm to himself and others. She went to Ryther, a treatment center in Seattle, but was still struggling afterwards. Finally, the school district, under the advice of an independent psychiatrist, recommended that she be sent to a therapeutic school in southern Utah. And there, says Toby, his daughter is thriving. She is on track to graduate and, more importantly, her mental health has improved.
“She is finally, finally, someone who believes and sees that she has self-esteem,” Toby says, “and that the things that happened to her, the trauma that she went through, are not the reflection of her.”
For Toby, it’s proof that the right kind of professional support can make a huge difference. He just wants it to be available at home.
The Northshore School District, which serves parts of King and Snohomish counties, had a unique needs program developed to keep all students in its school district, says Julie Trembath Neuberger, director of secondary special education.
“Because we firmly believe that the least restrictive environment matters. We want students to be part of the district,” she says.
But there were still problems with a lack of resources and staff injured by students. Three years ago, Northshore closed the program. These students, she said, needed round-the-clock therapeutic support, something the school district could not provide on its own and is hard to come by in the state as a whole.
Last year, Northshore sent six students out of state, at an average cost of $238,473 per student. By comparison, just four years earlier, Northshore had placed only one out-of-state student, according to state data, and it cost less than $75,000.
The underlying issues driving schools to expel students are ones that have plagued the state for years, education advocates and officials say: a lack of investment in special education and a lack of job placements. communities for people with disabilities or behavioral health issues.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction was also concerned, Gallo says, and the state agency expressed those concerns about the use of nonpublic agencies in the state legislature in 2018.
“Our concern that we expressed at the time, and that we continue to have, is that there are no sources of funding that help districts develop internal staff capacity on how to provide these specialized services,” says Gallo.
When asked by InvestigateWest why it was primarily districts in western Washington that were shipping children out of state, Gallo said she was “not aware” of this pattern, but that she would study it further. She says OSPI wants districts to be able to have trained staff “so students don’t progress to the point where they need intensive services outside of the district.” This would require more funding for special education.
So far, she says, she hasn’t seen the Legislative Assembly address the issue directly. But there are bills to increase school staff, psychologists, counsellors, nurses and educator training. These could help reduce the need for non-state agencies, Gallo says.
Arzu Forough, president and CEO of the Washington Autism Alliance, agrees that increased support for public schools would initially help reduce out-of-state placements. Often, she says, the dire situation children find themselves in before being kicked out of the state can have lasting effects.
“It’s the years of trauma that these students face before being placed in a proper placement that scars them and scars them for many, many years,” Forough says. “The focus should be on timely access to effective educational programs and effective therapeutic programs.”
Forough says she knows many other parents like Toby and like Haile with children who are either stuck in a hospital, unable to find a safe placement, or have been discharged from the state. She adds that Washington does not have therapeutic boarding schools, which focus more on education than residential treatment centers.
“And so we have this hodgepodge of different systems that don’t work well together,” says Forough. “It doesn’t surprise me that families have to make this really tough decision to place students out of state.”
Northshore School District’s Neuberger speculates that Washington overall lacks residential behavioral treatment options, in part because children in the state may refuse residential treatment once they turn 13, making it less likely to build schools. such an establishment in Washington. The law aims to give children more freedom in their care. State lawmakers changed it in 2019 to give parents more power to get outpatient treatment for children. However, in states with more residential behavioral health facilities, such as Utah, the age of consent is 18.
In his budget proposal for this legislative session, Governor Jay Inslee is calling for funding that would add to the state’s behavioral health treatment capacity. One proposal would be to add beds for therapeutic and out-of-home services for youth with significant behavioral issues. Another proposal would be to add a short-term residential crisis stabilization program for youth with severe behavioral health issues.
Dym, a former Inslee Education Ombudsman, supports further investment in behavioral health options. She doesn’t think the laws need to be changed to better serve students in Washington. If it costs $300,000 to move a student to Kansas, she asks, what could that money be used for here?
“We have the ability and capacity in our state to take care of our own children,” Dym says. “And we’ve made a really strong commitment not to. Because it’s not like the legislature and the agencies aren’t aware of the situation.
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