D.C. students sent to Massachusetts, Florida schools facing abuse claims

September 20, 2007

Washington Examiner

By Bill Myers

WASHINGTON - Dozens of the District of Columbia’s most vulnerable students have been farmed out to two schools that have been the subject of numerous allegations of abuse and neglect, an Examiner investigation found. The schools send about 2,000 special education students every year to outside facilities from Colorado to Florida, as well as several private schools in the District.


An Examiner investigation of two of those schools — Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass., and the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation Inc. in Wauchula, Fla. — revealed a disturbing pattern of incidents in schools paid millions of dollars by taxpayers over the past decade, including:


- A 14-year-old D.C. boy at Judge Rotenberg had his arm broken after being restrained by orderlies earlier this year. When the boy lost the cast in the shower, employees claimed he had tried to make it into a weapon and refused to give him a new one, according to an internal D.C. school system memo and a source.


- At least one D.C. child has been hooked up to an electrode-bearing backpack that allows Rotenberg officials to shock him if they think he is acting up, the memo said.


- Children at Rotenberg are lashed to their school-bus seats and “would have a hard time escaping a crash,” the memo said.


- The Florida Institute has been the subject of more than 400 abuse complaints since it opened in 1992.


- In 2005, court records show the Florida Institute was ordered to pay $2.5 million to the mother of a 35-year-old brain-damaged man who was smothered while undergoing “therapeutic restraint.”


- A boy from Ohio suffered five broken bones after only six weeks at Florida Institute, a lawsuit alleged.


Local children’s advocates are concerned that, until recently, D.C. school officials didn’t know about the problems, let alone seek explanations for them.


“There’s no monitoring,” said David McBride, a former D.C. special education official. “I don’t think they have the personnel, and frankly, I don’t think they’re competent enough to do it.”


Last week, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired a top special education official and is moving to fire two others for “dereliction of duty,” according to an internal memo and top school sources. She has also directed special education officials to stop sending children to Rotenberg and Florida. Rhee and State Superintendent Deborah Gist have opened separate investigations of the special education system, according to internal documents.


Federal law says children can be sent to outside schools, at public expense, if they can prove that their local schools can’t meet the students’ needs. Such placements cost the public more than $114 million in fiscal 2006 — more than $27 million more than what D.C. budgeted.


The Florida Institute was paid more than $1 million in fiscal 2007 to educate 11 children, school records show.


Rotenberg has been paid more than $4 million over the last three years, according to city records. It’s home to 10 students.


Gist, whose agency is responsible for monitoring city schools, said she has ordered her staff to inspect every outside school paid to take in D.C. children.


“We need to send a message to people who are exploiting either the kids or the system,” Gist told The Examiner. “We’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”


Rotenberg was founded by psychologist Matthew Israel and is the only school in the country authorized to use shock therapy on students.


Last week, D.C. special education Executive Director Marla Oakes visited Rotenberg, according to a D.C. school memo obtained by The Examiner. Oakes said she couldn’t find certified teachers at the school and that the children spent most of their day on computers.


“All students were vehement about wanting to return to D.C.,” the memo quoted Oakes as saying.


Rotenberg officials declined comment for this story, but Israel previously told The Examiner that the shock therapy was “effective.”


Israel has the support of some parents.


“It’s the best place for my child and others,” D.C. parent Theresa Brown wrote on Rotenberg’s Web site in April 2006.


The Florida Institute is owned by Joseph Brennick, a high school dropout who took the business from his father. The senior Brennick created the nation’s largest for-profit chain of brain-injury clinics, but the company folded in the 1990s amid Justice Department and congressional investigations.


Since 1992, when Joseph Brennick resurrected his father’s business, Florida regulatory agencies and courts have been flooded with complaints. The Florida Department of Children and Family has received more than 400 complaints and has investigated and “verified” more than 100 of them, department spokesman Al Zimmerman said.


Kevin O’Keefe, the chief psychologist at the clinic, defended the company’s work.


“The children are doing fairly well,” he said. “I’m not aware of any complaints. I’ve had none brought to my attention.”


But critics such as Una Marshall, whose adult son, Michael Lieux, died while in Florida Institute’s care, say Brennick has pocketed millions by hiring low-wage, unskilled workers to manage the daily care of the clinic’s patients.


“Everything looked normal,” she said. “But the caregivers weren’t trained.”


Marshall, 75, received $2.5 million from a Florida lawsuit after Lieux was killed during what the clinic called “therapeutic restraint” after he was accused of stealing snack cakes in 1998.


Lisha Bowen, the lawyer who argued Marshall’s suit, told The Examiner she has filed two other injury suits against the clinic. In one case, an Ohio couple dropped their teenage son off for evaluation. Six weeks later, the boy had five broken bones in his arms and legs.


When told that D.C. has been sending dozens of children to the clinic since 1996, Marshall gasped.


“Oh my God,” she said. “Keep them away. It’s pitiful.”

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