Ds Scholarship

Washington is shipping more disabled students out of state

Finding solutions at home

Toby, a parent in the Northshore School District who asked to withhold his last name to protect his daughter’s privacy, says sending his daughter away “saved her life.” She experienced significant trauma as a child, Toby says, and in her teenage years it displayed severely disruptive behavior both at school and home.

Toby feared she was at risk of harming herself and others. She went to Ryther, a treatment center in Seattle, but was still struggling afterward. 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, Toby says, his daughter is thriving. She’s on track to graduate, and more important, her mental health has improved.

“She finally, finally is someone who believes and sees that she has self-worth,” Toby says, “and that the things that have happened to her, the trauma that she has experienced, is not a reflection of her.”

For Toby, it’s evidence that the right kind of professional support can make a huge difference. He only wishes it was available at home.

The Northshore School District, serving parts of King and Snohomish counties, used to have 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 the students to be a part of the district,” she says.

But there were still issues with a lack of resources and staff members getting injured by students. Three years ago, Northshore shuttered the program. Those students, she says, needed therapeutic support 24 hours a day, something that the school district could not provide on its own and that is hard to find in the state as a whole.

Last school year, Northshore sent six students out of state, at an average cost of $238,473 per student. For comparison, just four years earlier, Northshore placed only one student out of the state, state data shows, and it cost less than $75,000.

The problems causing schools to send students away are ones that have plagued the state for years, advocates and education officials say: a lack of investment in special education, and a lack of community places for those with disabilities or behavioral health issues.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has been concerned, too, Gallo says, and the state agency expressed those concerns about the use of nonpublic agencies to the state Legislature in 2018.

“Our concern that we expressed at the time, and that we continue to have, is that there are not sources of funding that help districts develop internal capacity of staff around how to provide these specialized services,” Gallo says.

When asked by InvestigateWest why it was mostly Western Washington districts shipping kids out of state, Gallo says she was “not aware” of that pattern but will investigate it further. She says OSPI wants districts to be able to have trained staff “so that students don’t escalate to the point where they need intensive services outside of the district.” That would require more funding for special education.

So far, she says, she hasn’t seen the Legislature address the issue directly. But there are bills to increase school personnel, psychologists, counselors, nurses and training for educators. Those could contribute to reducing the need for nonpublic agencies, Gallo says.

Arzu Forough, president and CEO of the Washington Autism Alliance, agrees that more support for public schools would help as a first step to reducing out-of-state placesments. Often, she says, the dire situation kids are in before being sent out of the state can have lasting effects.

“It’s the years of trauma these students face before they’re placed in an appropriate placement that stays with them and scars them for many, many years,” Forough says. “The focus should be on timely access to effective education programs and effective therapeutic programs.”

Forough says she’s aware of many other parents like Toby and like Haile with children who are either stuck in a hospital, unable to find a safe placement, or who have been sent out of the state. She adds that Washington doesn’t have any therapeutic boarding schools, which focus more on education than residential treatment centers.

“And so we have this mishmash of different systems that don’t work well together,” Forough says. “It doesn’t surprise me that families have to make this really difficult decision to place students out of state.”

Neuberger of the Northshore School District speculates that Washington lacks residential treatment treatment options overall in part because children in the state can refuse residential treatment once they turn 13, making it less likely for such a facility to be built in Washington. The law is intended to allow kids more freedom in their care. State lawmakers tweaked it in 2019 to give parents more power in getting outpatient treatment for kids. In states with more residential behavioral health facilities, however, like Utah, the age of consent is 18.

In his proposed budget this session, Gov. Jay Inslee calls for funding that would add to the state’s behavioral health treatment capacity. One proposal would add bed space for therapeutic and out-of-home services for youth with significant behavioral issues. Another proposal would add a short-term Residential Crisis Stabilization Program for youth with severe behavioral health problems.

Dym, formerly Inslee’s education ombudsperson, supports added investment in behavioral health options. She doesn’t think any laws need to be changed in order 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 kids,” Dym says. “And we really have made a solid commitment not to. Because it’s not like the Legislature and the agencies are not aware of the situation.”

InvestigateWest is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/donate to support this kind of in-depth reporting.

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