Death highlights lack of regulation at Georgia 'psychoeducational' schools

Tina King always asked her son Jonathan about his day at the Alpine Program, a public school in Gainesville for students with behavioral problems. Jonathan would answer with the indifferent shrug of adolescence. “It was school,” he would say.

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Jonathan, 13, never mentioned the stark 8-by-8 concrete-block room where he spent hours alone, locked up for misbehaving. Alpine called it the time-out room, and it offered neither distraction nor stimulation. No windows. No furniture. No bathroom. No food. No water.

Teachers placed Jonathan there 19 times over 29 days in the fall of 2004. His average confinement: 94 minutes.

On Nov. 15, 2004, as was his habit, Jonathan came to school not wearing a belt. A teacher gave him a multicolored rope to keep his pants from drooping. Soon, teachers placed Jonathan in the time-out room and, although he had twice threatened suicide, allowed him to keep the rope — the rope he then used to hang himself.

Jonathan’s death called attention to a little-known component of Georgia’s public school system: “psychoeducational” facilities such as Alpine that teach only students who are emotionally disturbed, autistic or so brain-injured that regular schools can’t control their behavior.

Nationally, more and more such children are being taught in regular classrooms, educators say. Georgia, however, continues to provide a separate education to about 5,600 students with disabilities through its network of 24 psychoeducational schools.

State education officials describe the psychoeducational schools as one of many programs that provide services to students with behavioral disorders and other disabilities. The schools, officials said, offer an alternative to far more expensive residential treatment institutions.

“It allows these students to be educated in their communities,” said Kim Hartsell, director of special education supports for the Georgia Department of Education. “It also is a cost-effective way of educating students with severe emotional disorders.”

But some parents and the Education Department’s own inspectors have questioned the schools’ disciplinary tactics, especially physical restraint and seclusion. Georgia is one of 19 states that do not regulate restraint and seclusion in schools, a recent federal study found. Unlike jails, for instance, or psychiatric hospitals, Georgia schools don’t have to report when they subject students to those techniques, or why.

“As isolated centers, they’re just archaic,” said Jonathan Zimring, an Atlanta lawyer who has represented families of students at psychoeducational schools. “They’re essentially lawless.”

And, as Jonathan King’s parents have learned, no one seems to be accountable for how the schools treat students.

The Kings, who live in Murrayville, sued the Education Department and the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency, a government body that operates Alpine for 14 Northeast Georgia school districts, alleging they violated Jonathan’s civil rights by failing to protect him during his confinement. Through its lawyer, Phil Hartley, Pioneer contends it was “not responsible or negligent in any way.” In court papers, both the state and regional agencies denied liability, asserting they had no “affirmative duty” to prevent Jonathan’s suicide.

A judge in Hall County Superior Court agreed. But even as he dismissed the lawsuit, the judge suggested school employees acted with negligence. The Kings have asked the state Court of Appeals to overturn the dismissal.

“Apparently, they don’t care,” said Don King, Jonathan’s father. “They locked that child up in that room for hours at a time and didn’t tell us. It’s hard to tell how many other kids are getting the same treatment.”

‘A be-quiet hit’

In the Georgia of the 1960s, emotionally disturbed children who acted up in class often were simply expelled, even from special education programs.

A group of University of Georgia professors came up with an alternative: a special school that would mix therapy with instruction while using innovative methods to suppress severe behavioral disorders. The first psychoeducational school in Georgia opened in Athens in 1970.

Two years later, the General Assembly created the Georgia Psychoeducational Network, which would grow to two dozen facilities across the state. (The state discarded the original name in 2007 in favor of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.)

“They were created from a good place, to fill a gap in the system,” said Zimring, who represents disabled people but has no role in the King case. “The problem is that was 1972. This is 37 years later. They have been maintained without a clear definition of who should be in there.”

The schools endure in Georgia even as many states de-emphasize special education programs that segregate students, according to educators, child psychologists and children’s advocates.

“The trend definitely is toward more and more inclusive placements,” said Mary Beth Klotz, a projects director with the National Association of School Psychologists. Many educators, she said, now recognize that children with disabilities or behavioral problems benefit from “having an opportunity to better access the general education curriculum.”

Federal law requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment,” preferrably a classroom with students who are not disabled. The law considers a separate school, or even a separate classroom, appropriate only in extreme circumstances.

Complaints about Georgia’s psychoeducational schools emerge from reports of inspections by the Education Department and legal challenges filed by parents: inadequate classroom instruction, abusive treatment by teachers and other school employees, and an over-reliance on restraint and seclusion as disciplinary techniques.

In April, state inspectors visited Harrell Learning Program, the psychoeducational school in Waycross. The school’s policies, inspectors reported, call for placing students in seclusion only for physical attacks, self-injury or property destruction. In reality, inspectors said, Harrell locked up students for “far less severe” behaviors, such as “throwing milk and spitting” and “avoiding work.” One student was placed in seclusion for two days, records show, “until he decides he is ready to try and change his behaviors that got him in trouble.”

In Atlanta, Zimring represented the parents of a 10-year-old with autism who attended the North Metro psychoeducational school. Suspecting that their son, who can’t speak, was receiving little instruction and was being mistreated, the parents sewed a tape recorder into his shirt one day last October. The boy came home with torn pants and marks from an apparent spanking. He also had a recording that confirmed his parents’ fears.

At one point, an unidentified adult asked the boy, “Do you want a hit, a be-quiet hit?”

An adult told another student, “Sit down, stupid.”

The classroom teacher could be heard on the tape — now part of a court record — discussing how to mix martinis, describing her boyfriend’s penis, and ridiculing the boy for eating pizza out of the trash.

A judge ordered the Atlanta Public Schools to pay the boy’s tuition at a private school.

‘Utterly unregulated’

Jonathan King’s behavioral problems began early. In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and began a regimen of prescription medications.

“They couldn’t keep him in his desk,” Tina King, his mother, said. “He would talk out in class. He would get in fights.”

By the sixth grade, Jonathan’s teachers and counselors decided it was time for another approach: the Alpine school.

At Alpine, school officials told Tina that classes were small, meaning fewer distractions to tempt Jonathan from completing his work and more one-on-one time with teachers.

Disruptive students, Tina says she was told, went to a “time-out room.” She thought of the time-outs she imposed at home, making Jonathan sit still for five or 10 minutes when he misbehaved.

“I had no idea,” she said recently, “that it meant being locked in a room, hours on end, where you can’t get out. I never could have dreamed that.”

Jonathan was in eighth grade in the fall of 2004. He never complained about school, his parents say, never told them anything other than he had occasionally gone to “time out.”

The Kings’ lawyers, though, eventually learned the extent of Jonathan’s understatement.

A log book for Alpine’s seclusion room showed Jonathan was confined part or all of 15 school days between August and November, sometimes twice in one day. Over two consecutive days in October, Jonathan spent 15 hours in seclusion. The first day, Jonathan ripped the hem from his shirt and wrapped it around his neck in a suicidal gesture. The next day, the log says, he was “threatening to kill himself.”

Rather than using the seclusion room only as a last resort to get the boy under control, the log suggests it became a place where teachers sometimes placed Jonathan for minor infractions. On Oct. 26, 2004, for instance, Jonathan was “cussing, argumentative and disruptive during testing; demanding water bottle be filled; swearing; [and refusing] to follow instructions,” the log says. He spent seven hours, 10 minutes in the seclusion room that day. Ten days later, on Nov. 5, Jonathan was locked up for five hours, 50 minutes after he “refused to accept feedback.”

Alpine never told Jonathan’s parents about any of the seclusions. It didn’t have to. In court papers, Alpine contends the state’s lack of regulation gave it implicit authority to use seclusion as it saw fit.

While Georgia has no laws or rules governing seclusion and restraint in public schools, 31 states and the District of Columbia have restricted the practices, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Arkansas and Maryland, for example, require a school employee to watch a student in seclusion at all times. Illinois and Tennessee ban locking doors to seclusion rooms. North Carolina allows seclusion only to prevent imminent harm.

“You can’t lock up an adult without due process of law,” said one of the Kings’ lawyers, Wyc Orr of Gainesville. But in Georgia, “schools have utterly unregulated power to lock up a child seven to eight hours a day without even notifying the parents.”

In seclusion

Jonathan hated belts. When he played football with friends, his father recalls, he used one hand to carry the ball, the other to hold up his pants.

So it was not unusual when Jonathan arrived at Alpine without a belt on Nov. 15, 2004. A teacher handed him a rope and told him to wear it.

About 9:25 that morning, school records show, Jonathan fought with another student. He was “cussing, combative, out of control,” a school employee noted. Jonathan was small for his age: 4-foot-10, 84 pounds. But it took two teachers to escort him to a familiar destination: the seclusion room.

When they closed the metal door, Jonathan still had the rope around his waist.

The only portal to the outside was a small square window in the door, covered by paper on the exterior and a metal grille inside. Graffiti covered the door: vulgar messages scratched into the paint by previous occupants. Pencil drawings and scuff marks marred the walls.

During his first 15 minutes in seclusion that day, school records show, Jonathan beat on the door, yelled, cursed and sang. A teacher sitting outside the seclusion room told him he had to stay calm for 15 minutes before he could be released. After 35 minutes, the teacher noted that Jonathan had become “quiet” and “non-threatening.”

On the other side of the door, Jonathan had removed the rope from his pants. He looped one end through the metal grille bolted into place over the window.

In the middle of the rope, he tied a slip knot, fashioning a noose.

Five years later

When they saw the results of investigations of Jonathan’s suicide by the Gainesville police and their lawyers, the Kings were shocked by what they had not known: that “time out” meant confinement in a locked room, that Jonathan had missed days of instruction while in seclusion, that he had threatened to take his life just three weeks before he actually did so.

“People send their kids to school thinking they’re going to be safe,” Don King said. “Apparently, you don’t know whether they’re going to be safe or not.”

Almost five years after Jonathan died, Alpine still operates in the rear of an old school building on Gainesville’s south side. State school officials have developed non-binding guidelines for the seclusion and restraint of special education students, and may impose regulations later this year.

For the Kings, life without Jonathan remains difficult and filled with reminders. In recent weeks, the couple attended a court hearing on their lawsuit and sat for a long interview. On July 13, they marked what would have been a milestone in Jonathan’s life.

His 18th birthday.


The psychoeducational system

Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support: Twenty-four publicly run "psychoeducational" schools for students who have severe behavioral disorders, autism and traumatic brain injury. Each school accepts students from multiple school districts and provides psychological treatment as well as classroom instruction.

Purpose: The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to provide a "free and appropriate public education" to students with disabilities. Along with other special education programs, Georgia operates the psychoeducational network.

Created: 1972

Enrollment: About 5,600 a year

Funding: $70.2 million for the 2009-10 school year

Governance: Half the psychoeducational schools are operated by publicly funded regional education service agencies, the other 12 by local school districts.

Complaints: In 2008, the Georgia Department of Education received 44 complaints about psychoeducational schools and other special education programs. Seven were withdrawn. Of the remaining 37, the school district was found to be in compliance with state and federal rules in 18 cases and in partial compliance in six cases; school districts were found to be out of compliance in 13 cases. Districts were ordered to pay students' private school tuition in some cases and to change students' educational plans in others.

Psychoeducational schools in metro Atlanta

DeKalb-Rockdale Program, Lithonia, operated by DeKalb County schools, serving DeKalb and Rockdale counties and Decatur city schools.

H.A.V.E.N. Academy, Smyrna, operated by Cobb County schools, serving Cobb and Douglas counties and Marietta city schools.

Northstar Educational and Therapeutic Services, Canton, operated by Cherokee County schools, serving Cherokee, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties and Dalton city schools.

North Metro Program, Atlanta, operated by Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency, serving Gwinnett County, north Fulton, north Atlanta and Buford city schools.

South Metro Program, Forest Park, operated by Clayton County schools, serving Clayton County, south Fulton and south Atlanta city schools.

Sources: Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.


Other cases

Members of Congress, children’s advocates and organizations that protect people with disabilities have called attention to the use of seclusion and restraint in special education programs such as Georgia’s psychoeducational schools. Among the cases from Georgia highlighted in recent studies and legal cases:

● Teachers placed a boy with dyslexia and Asperger’s Disorder, a form of autism, in seclusion because he broke pencils and pushed away papers when given difficult reading or writing tasks. While in seclusion, the boy hit his head against the wall; advocates described his treatment as emotional and physical abuse.

● An autistic child was strapped into a chair for four to five hours a day because he was crying and screaming and soiling himself.

● A student with severe physical and mental impairments was repeatedly placed in seclusion for extended periods, restrained in a chair. When he defecated and spread feces on his body and face, his teacher tried to wash him so his mother would not find out.

● To evaluate an 8-year-old girl with severe behavioral problems, a psychologist at a psycho-educational school planned to isolate the child in a room, where he would don a protective suit and try to trigger her sometimes-violent outbursts. A judge ordered the psychologist not to implement his plan.

Sources: U.S. Government Accountability Office, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Inc., National Disability Rights Network, court records.


How we got the story

Details on Jonathan King’s enrollment at a Gainesville psychoeducational school and his suicide there came from court records, school documents obtained by his family, and interviews with his parents and their lawyers.

A reporter also examined inspection reports of psychoeducational schools by the Georgia Department of Education, legal filings by parents of children enrolled in the schools, federal and state reports on special education programs in Georgia, and a history of the state’s psychoeducational schools by the director of one facility.