Special education program transitions back to CPS control

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Carol Brown of Race Matters, Friends examines the seclusion rooms last year at the Center for Responsive Education's FOCUS program, operated by contractor Catapult Learning in the building owned by Columbia Public Schools. [Photo provided by Lara Wakefield]

© Provided by Columbia Daily Tribune
Carol Brown of Race Matters, Friends examines the seclusion rooms last year at the Center for Responsive Education’s FOCUS program, operated by contractor Catapult Learning in the building owned by Columbia Public Schools. [Photo provided by Lara Wakefield]

When the Columbia Public Schools contractor operating a program for students with special education plans sought liability protection in its renewal offer, the school board in May voted to end the contract.

The school district instead decided to operate the program in-house, with district personnel.

The move didn’t prevent a lawsuit.Two parents are suing the school district and the company on behalf of their children, whom the parents allege were confined in seclusion rooms in the FOCUS program at the Center of Responsive Education.

The lawsuit filed last month by Shawan Daniels and Laquesha Jackson on behalf of their children, ages 11 and 13, names the school district; Specialized Education Services Inc., parent company of Catapult Learning; district special services director Alyse Monsees; district Chief Equity Officer Carla London; and Jess Miller and Aaron O’Neal, local officials with Catapult.

It alleges disability discrimination, violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, negligent supervision, false imprisonment, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The students were confined in plywood boxes at FOCUS roughly four feet by six feet wide and eight feet high for extended periods, causing emotional and mental distress, embarrassment and humiliation, the lawsuit alleges.

“Even students who weren’t themselves confined in the boxes at CORE were terrorized by their use on others and the knowledge that they too could be sent to the boxes,” the lawsuit reads.

“I think it is a failure of the system and a failure of the individuals in the system,” said Julianne Germinder, lead attorney for the students and their parents.

One purpose of the lawsuit is to draw attention to the practices, she said.

“I think there are other potential plaintiffs,” Germinder said. “I hope this makes people understand if they have options.”

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages in an amount that will punish the defendants and prevent future similar conduct.

“We want to deter these practices,” Germinder said. “We want these parents to be heard.”

It’s sad that the first complaints and news stories about seclusion rooms didn’t result in action, she said.

“I hope that the school board takes a hard look at his,” Germinder said. “I hope this draws attention.”

The district doesn’t comment on litigation, spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

The seclusion rooms were the topic of a legislative hearing which Columbia Board of Education member Helen Wade and Superintendent Peter Stiepleman declined to attend. Legislation to set stricter rules on the use of seclusion rooms passed the Missouri House, but didn’t make it to the Senate floor for debate.

Angela Jolley, a learning specialist for the district, testified that she heard crying and pleading from students in confinement.

The lawsuit also lists incidents of seclusion and restraint of the students in other district buildings before they were placed at FOCUS.

And while the district ended the FOCUS program contract, Catapult Learning continues to work with district students at High Road School of Boone County, to the dismay of some advocates.

The new Roseta Avenue Learning Center, in the former Cedar Ridge Elementary School, is being used for some students who previously were in the FOCUS program.

Other former FOCUS students are at High Road School of Boone County, according to an advocate of students with disabilities. Still others are at John Warner Middle School.

District officials provided little information about the setup at the Roseta Avenue Learning Center.

“We have a great building administrator in place and an enthusiastic staff who is focused on meeting the needs of our students,” Baumstark said.

The situation is fluid, she said.

“We’re 10 days in during a pandemic where just about everything is different and nothing is business as usual,” she said.

Alyse Monsees, the district’s special services director, also was brief in her comments.

“We have an administrator in place,” Monsees said. “They’re focused on students.”

She also indicated COVID-19 is affecting every decision.

“We’re in a pandemic,” she said.

The move away from the contractor to district personnel was the right one, said Lara Wakefield, an advocate for students on special education plans.

“I do know there was a transition of some of the students to the Roseta building and a new setup was started without seclusion rooms and there’s a focus on trauma-informed practice,” Wakefield said. “That is a step in the right direction.”

There were former FOCUS students at the new middle school, she said.

“A few of the other students were transferred to the new program inside John Warner Middle School,” Wakefield said. “I understand they have been going in person and acclimating to their new space.”

Another child advocate, Angela Jasper, is a former special services employee in the school district.

“I do know that there are kids that have transitioned to the Roseta building and are in classrooms with small number of kids in them,” she said.

Robyn Schelp, president of Missouri Disability Empowerment, said the new arrangement is an improvement.

“Now the students are in CPS buildings with CPS teachers where we have strong policies against seclusion and restraint,” she said.

Wakefield, Jasper and Schelp were among those who spoke against renewing the agreement for High Road School of Boone County.

“The seclusion rooms are still part of the curriculum and therefore are still likely used at the off-site High Road location,” Jasper said. “When I visited the site while working at CPS, I saw one of the seclusion rooms. Because it is off-site, it seems that CPS would have even less oversight of what’s happening in that building.”

The item was on the consent agenda of the Sept. 14 school board meeting, typically approved without discussion, but not this time.

School board member David Seamon asked Stiepleman if there are seclusion rooms at High Road School.

“Probably there is, if it’s part of the High Road program,” Stiepleman said. “It’s a standalone program.”

Seamon voted against the consent agenda, the only board member to do so.

“It was an automatic ‘no’ for me,” Seamon said by phone. Seclusion rooms were a big issue in his campaign for the school board, he added.

Specialized Education Services, also called Catapult Learning, operated FOCUS and operates High Road School of Boone County, which includes students from all Boone County districts.

There was no cost associated with the agreement. The cost in 2019-20 was $562,450, but district Chief Financial Officer Heather McArthur said it may be more this school year because of the number of students transferred from FOCUS to High Road School.

The company can’t say if there are seclusion rooms at the High Road location because of the pending litigation, spokeswoman Jennifer Leckstrom said. She also didn’t comment on the lawsuit.

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