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*** UPDATED x1 *** Multiple child abuse investigations underway at Gages Lake School

Thursday, Dec 12, 2019

* ProPublica Illinois reporters Duaa Eldeib, Lakeidra Chavis and Haru Coryne and Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards

The knock came on Beth Sandy’s door late one Friday afternoon at the end of May.

Standing outside was an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the state agency charged with examining allegations of child abuse and neglect.

Sandy assumed she was in trouble for violating truancy laws. A week earlier, she had pulled her 7-year-old son from Gages Lake School, which serves young children in suburban Lake County with behavioral and emotional disabilities, after he complained of a scary office and began hiding under the bed when the school bus arrived. […]

But she wasn’t the target of the investigation; school employees were. An administrator at Gages Lake had reported concerns to DCFS that Sandy’s son Staley had been physically abused, the investigator explained. There was video. The investigator wanted to talk with the boy.

Since mid-May, DCFS has opened a total of 21 abuse investigations involving students at Gages Lake. Citing evidence from surveillance video, agency reports describe workers grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground in a cluster of four seclusion spaces — some with lockable doors, others open — that the school calls “the office.”

Two aides at the center of the investigations resigned from the school. One of them is facing criminal charges; Lake County prosecutors allege he used excessive force on students. […]

Two weeks into the current school year, a teacher contacted DCFS with a warning, records show. “None of the children at the school are safe,” he said. […]

During the 15-month period reporters examined, from August 2017 to December 2018, Gages Lake students were secluded more times than students at all but one Illinois school included in the analysis.

More recent data obtained by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois shows that Gages Lake put students in isolation more than 1,700 times in the school year that ended in May. At least 23% of those timeouts occurred for no documented safety reason, reporters found. Instead, the students had disrespected staff, failed to comply with rules or engaged in verbal abuse.

The Special Education District of Lake County, the district that oversees Gages Lake and several other programs for students with disabilities, is one of eight districts under investigation by the Illinois State Board of Education in response to the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois report. SEDOL has joined other Illinois districts in taking the doors off seclusion rooms after the state banned isolated seclusion.

* And there’s more

An aide named Nicholas Izquierdo, who was sitting in a rolling chair, leaned down and grabbed the boy by the ankles, causing the child to fall to the ground, according to DCFS records and his parents, who watched video of the incident.

After watching the footage, school officials reported the incident to DCFS and an investigator showed up at the boy’s home on the evening of May 17. The boy, who has ADHD and behavioral disabilities, told the worker he was sent to the seclusion space when he didn’t follow directions to walk — not run — in a hallway, according to agency records.

School officials watched more surveillance video from the office, which is kept for 30 days. They made another call to DCFS, then another, then another.

ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune reviewed confidential DCFS records that describe what school officials saw in the videos.

The Gurnee boy appeared on video several times. Footage from April 24 showed a different aide, Jennifer Aguirre, carrying him across a room and then throwing him into the timeout area, where he landed on a tile floor. On May 3, Aguirre grabbed the boy by the wrist, turned him around and picked him up.

Staley, the boy from Round Lake Heights, was shown in one of the rooms within the office on April 30. Aguirre, sitting on a rolling chair in the doorway, blocked him from leaving, once pinning his wrist against the wall. He got increasingly upset and kicked at her. She then stood up, chased Staley down and grabbed him around the neck.

On May 1, according to records describing the videos, Izquierdo pulled a 5-year-old boy’s legs out from under him, causing him to fall on his arm. “It is surprising (the boy’s) arm wasn’t broken,” a school administrator told DCFS, according to the agency records. A week later, on May 8, records show, Izquierdo pushed an 8-year-old boy in his chest and onto the floor when the student tried to leave the room.

In all, in a one-month period, school officials identified possible physical abuse involving eight children, from 5 to 8 years old, DCFS records show.

The grotesqueness of treating little kids this way just boggles my mind. I generally refrain from using the word “evil,” but it very well may apply here.

* These kids were often punished for minor rules infractions, not because they were a potential harm to themselves or others

Attorney Micki Moran, who specializes in education law and has consulted with Gages Lake families, said the numbers illustrate that the use of timeouts was embedded in the school’s culture.

“They did it as if it’s what you do every day, like it’s the norm,” Moran said. “These kids weren’t always a danger to themselves or anybody. Frequently these happened because of noncompliance, period.”

For example, after Staley’s mother requested his records, she saw that he was taken to the office for hiding under a cubby, not following directions, flipping a chair and refusing to come inside from recess.

* And there’s this

In October, a sheriff’s officer reported to DCFS that an 8-year-old boy had a scratch on his face and a possible swollen eye after a teacher grabbed him by the face and arm as he was running in the hall.

Two parents also reported that employees had pushed or grabbed their children. When DCFS interviewed one of the boys, he described the office as “a mean place where they put you in rooms with nothing in there and you have to sit” for 10 minutes.

A school employee reported that a 9-year-old boy told her he was elbowed in the face by a teacher. And a teacher called DCFS at the end of the school day on Aug. 29 to report that the school was unsafe for students and staff members. He said the school was “extremely understaffed” and students were wandering freely and physically fighting each other, DCFS records show.

* The root of the problem appears to be lack of qualified staff and employees who despise their charges

“You have to use force. If you can’t, you have just kids running through the hallway doing what they want to do. Who will stop them? (Staff) are all scared,” said the former Gages Lake aide. “These kids are not kids, these are animals. They are strong.”

These kids are not kids?

*** UPDATE *** Rep. Jonathan Carroll…

It’s situations like this in Gages Lake that show how impactful the use of isolation is on all children. The fact that staff took it to another level with physical abuse angers me to the core. Where was the oversight? Who let this happen on his/her watch? What kind of monsters are these schools hiring? How can anyone live with him/herself when they see a child being thrown into a room and physically abused? Fixing this evil will be my number one priority this upcoming legislative session.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

15 Comments
  1. - Papa2008 - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:18 pm:

    Until our sorry state steps up and provides the financial support to adequately hire, train, and retain quality staff, this will continue. But these folks don’t vote. Or donate to political campaigns. (Sigh)


  2. - SSL - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:24 pm:

    You need quality staff in the right quantity. A very difficult situation with no quick fixes. You can take steps to eliminate the worst practices, but best practices only come through planning, resources and execution. Not everyone, or even many, are cut out for this type of work.


  3. - Jocko - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:29 pm:

    ==You have to use force.==

    If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


  4. - Juvenal - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:30 pm:

    If DCFS and ISBE have known for this long that there were this many problems with the use of seclusion, especially with one school, why did it take a Tribune story and social media storm to get the Governor and ISBE to implement emergency rules?

    This is gross neglect by the state.

    Secondly, we need to have a sweeping re-examination of special education districts. Starting with the question “Should they exist?”


  5. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:33 pm:

    === “These kids are not kids, these are animals.“===

    This is repulsive and inhuman to think this about kids.

    I’m sickened they are even near a child ever.

    Thanks, Rich, for highlighting it, even as I’m truly disgusted. It’s too important to not be seen more.


  6. - Ed Equity - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:34 pm:

    When kids are assigned to their Distrcit and their schools based upon their zip code, unless they have the personal finances to pay their way into a private school they are stuck. Abusive or not, they have no way to leave and without the consequence of reduced enrollment, schools and admin have no reason to change either.

    Parents of children with unique learning needs such as autism, learning disorders, “twice exceptionalism”, and other individualized learning needs, are subject to very limited, inflexible, and often poor quality educational options for their children. Too often, unique learners lack access to effective learning tools, and staff that are trained and equipped to assist in their educational growth. They are the victims of mandates are not carried through, and funding is not applied effectively or equitably.

    Those who qualify for special education are able to receive an Individualized Education Plans (IEP). IEPs are intended to be designed to meet special education students’ individual needs including supplemental therapies, specialized educational delivery providers, and related aids and services.
     
    Far too often, IEPs don’t deliver what is needed. When this is the case, and when mediation fails, the current advocacy strategy for parents of unique learners is to provide every child with an attorney to ensure their IEPs are executed fairly. As a result, families across the United States have ongoing lawsuits. For those parents who are lucky enough to reach a settlement, they are systematically given gag orders in order to limit expansion of further legal action against the offending school districts.
      
    It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of parents with financial means have sued districts across the country, alleging that their children’s rights under IDEA have been violated. Many other, lower-income, families aren’t as lucky. They lack the resources to fight against lawyered-up school districts that are willing to spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat them. Subsequently, they are forced to live with the fact that the only option for their children will be a substandard education and in this case abusive.

    Until parents are empowered, this will continue. No policy will change this any deeper than at the surface.


  7. - FormerParatrooper - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:43 pm:

    You have to use force…. if you feel the need to use force on small children to correct their behaviour, then may I suggest we find someone who is much larger than you to correct your behaviour?

    “These kids are not kids, these are animals. They are strong”… No, you are the animal.


  8. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 1:56 pm:

    ==One video showed Staley in the office, calmly playing with a paper puppet, when staff moved him into the locked room, his mother said.==
    == (Staff) are all scared==
    Scared of a kid playing with a puppet?


  9. - Maryjane - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 2:02 pm:

    Each and every staff member who abused these children abused their authority and identified themselves as all but irredeemable monsters. Each one should be facing crippling fines and years and years of hard time.


  10. - Earnest - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 2:57 pm:

    >Who let this happen on his/her watch?

    That’s the key question for me. This is not about a couple of hires who turned out to be bad people. This seems more about an ongoing, established workplace culture. That is a leadership issue, and a very serious one.


  11. - cdog - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 3:22 pm:

    Clever. The children are programmed to go home and tell their parents they were “sent to the office.” The deception of labeling the restraint rooms as “the office” adds to the likelihood that “evil” may be appropriate here.

    Be careful, however, to not to conflate bad employees making bad choices, with the real dangers, frustrations, and concerns of people that work with BD and ED kids.


  12. - dbk - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 3:22 pm:

    @Earnest, agreed. It’s a leadership issue which informs the overall school culture at Gages Lake.

    Understaffing is clearly a chronic problem and needs to be urgently addressed as well, but firstly, the school’s leader(s) need to be relieved of duty like, day before yesterday.

    Horrific.


  13. - RNUG - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 3:26 pm:

    == … parents with financial means have sued districts ==

    Unfortunately it has been this way for at least 30 years. Speaking from experience, a multi-inch thick file of documentation and threat of a lawsuit is, at minimum, what it takes to get a school district’s attention and proper service delivery.


  14. - MyTwoCents - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 4:58 pm:

    The entire article is disturbing and yet well worth reading every single word. Between the allegations of abuse, the reports of under-staffing and the reports of injuries to staff members it’s obvious that there are serious & systemic issues at that school. While the teachers and aides who committed the abuse should be punished, the administrators and board members need to be held accountable for allowing the situation to spiral out of control, leading to the abuse of students and staff injuries.


  15. - Morty - Thursday, Dec 12, 19 @ 6:00 pm:

    Some things I had extracted from the article

    SEDOL Superintendent Valerie Donnan said an internal investigation into the use of isolated timeout and physical restraint concluded that some “procedures were not followed” at Gages Lake. “We have been actively and relentlessly working to change,” she wrote last week in response to questions. (She, of course, was completely unaware that her programs were understaffed and under trained)

    “The overall flow of that building was so chaotic and unsafe,” said a Gages Lake teacher who resigned in the fall. “I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what their expectations were. My safety was at risk. The kids’ safety was at risk.”
    (This is referring to NOW- not the situation as existed during the report, meaning thee situation has likely gotten worse)

    State officials are concerned about the frequent use of timeout at Gages Lake, said State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. An ISBE official visited the school last week. (To me this is the crux of the matter- 15 months of investigation, FOIA requests, and ISBE IGNORED THE SITUATION)

    But even before the first day, teachers were on edge, according to Rebecca Slye, co-president of the SEDOL teachers union. She said she asked school administrators whether there was enough trained staff to open safely. (I imagine she was absolutely correct and was absolutely ignored)

    In addition to the employees placed on paid leave, about two dozen teachers, aides and social workers have resigned or retired since the abuse investigations began in the spring, board meeting minutes show. (Who is going to take a job there now?)

    In September, SEDOL board members voted to stop accepting new students, a ban that remains in effect. At the time, 30 percent of positions were unfilled. (Meaning they were well aware that the building was understaffed when school opened)


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