On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that has caused anguish in the world of special education and children's mental health.
The case, Forest Grove v. TA, centers on the question of whether families with a disabled child have a right to seek reimbursement for private-school tuition from the state if the child did not first receive special-education services in public school. The legal question is a narrow one, but the case raises larger, more troublesome issues about student safety and the quality of educational services that families should expect when they place their children in private residential care, because the school involved in the case, Mount Bachelor Academy, near Prineville, Ore., is under state investigation for allegations of abuse reported by students and one employee. (See pictures of being 13 in America.)
A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) declined to discuss the details of the ongoing investigations, which include a second inquiry based on possible licensing violations. But according to 10 students, two separate parents and a part-time employee interviewed by TIME some of whom are involved in the inquiry Mount Bachelor Academy regularly uses intensely humiliating tactics as treatment. For instance, in required seminars that the school calls Lifesteps, students say staff members of the residential program have instructed girls, some of whom say they have been victims of rape or sexual abuse, to dress in provocative clothing fishnet stockings, high heels and miniskirts and perform lap dances for male students as therapy.
Sharon Bitz, executive director of Mount Bachelor Academy, denies the charges. In an e-mailed statement to TIME, she said the reports of abuse are "inaccurate representations of Mount Bachelor Academy's therapeutic approach for struggling or underachieving teens. Some of the accusations are demonstrably false, while others have been exaggerated for shock effect."
In response to the accusations of sexual humiliation, Bitz told Oregon's Bend Bulletin newspaper in a recent interview that school officials have never instructed students to act in a way that would "sexualize them," and that the students' costumes came from their own dorm rooms and were chosen by the students. "We would never ask a student to give a lap dance," Bitz told the paper.
When the Supreme Court hears arguments in Forest Grove v. TA this month, it will not determine whether Mount Bachelor Academy or any facility chosen by families offers appropriate care. The parents of the student, TA (because he was a minor at the time the case was filed, the student is identified by his initials, and his parents have not made their names public), stand to gain only the right to seek reimbursement for the child's stay at Mount Bachelor under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
A ruling for the parents could have serious financial implications for cash-strapped school districts. Federal funding for private special-education placements, including residential and nonresidential programs, totaled $5.3 billion in the fiscal year 1999-2000, the most recent year for which data is available from the Special Education Expenditure Project, a national study begun in 1999 and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education. In New York City alone, the number of reimbursement claims by parents who have unilaterally placed their kids in private special education rose from 3,023 to 4,068, and the city's spending on private placements went from $53 million in 2005-2006 to $88.9 million in 2007-2008, after the Second Circuit Court ruled in favor of the families in two similar cases in 2005 and 2006.
It is not known how many of the thousands of families who send their children to so-called therapeutic boarding schools each year receive tuition reimbursement via IDEA. The exact number of therapeutic boarding schools operating in the U.S. is also unknown, since no official body tracks them, but some estimates put the figure at 150 to 300. Tuition is far from cheap. Monthly costs at residential facilities are $5,000 and up; Mount Bachelor, which houses up to 125 students, charges $6,400 per month, and in 2008 revenue for the Aspen Education Group, which owns Mount Bachelor and is one of the largest chains of residential facilities for problem students, it topped $132 million.
The proceedings of Forest Grove are being watched with intense concern by school administrators and the teachers union as well as children's advocates. Most advocates argue that families should have access to private schools when public schools cannot provide free and appropriate public education for a disabled child, but most also say that public funds should not be used to pay for residential schools like Mount Bachelor. Such programs, they say, are overly restrictive and unproven, and virtually all their students who typically have depression, substance use, behavioral problems or ADHD can be safely treated within the community.
"We feel very strongly that for-profit residential facilities are completely inappropriate for special education. They have been shown to be ineffective and commonly employ practices that do harm," says Alison Barkoff, senior staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
But because the programs are privately run, what happens within their walls is largely a mystery. No one knows whether the programs succeed or fail.