WA bills propose initiatives to bring special-ed students back home

State lawmakers hope to increase oversight of kids with disabilities sent out of state and prohibit or limit the use of isolation and restraint.

Diamond Ranch Academy

Diamond Ranch Academy in Hurricane, Utah, where five Washington students were sent in 2021, has over the years been accused of abusing students and overusing restraint. (St. George News/STGnews.com)

Alarmed at the number of special education students shipped away from Washington, state lawmakers and education officials hope to use this legislative session to increase oversight of kids sent out of state, prohibit or limit the use of isolation and restraint, and ultimately find a way to bring those students back home. 

InvestigateWest first reported last February that the number of public school students sent to out-of-state facilities, which Washington refers to as “nonpublic agencies,” has been increasing rapidly in recent years. State and local education officials often lack oversight over these facilities, and don’t know how often their staffs use controversial practices such as physical restraint or isolation. Lawmakers told InvestigateWest the issue would be a priority going into this session. 

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

So far the issue is being addressed through a combination of bills and budget items that cumulatively would result in major special education reforms in Washington. 

Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said in an interview that she expects to add to the budget a proviso that would dedicate some funding — less than a million dollars, she said — to examine what is happening in out-of-state facilities and explore what services would be necessary to bring students back. 

“It would allow us to investigate: What services are they receiving? Are they at risk? Are they in services that could be brought home and established here in the state of Washington? And what would it take to do that?” Wellman said. 

New legislation requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction this session — HB 1479 and SB 5559 — would also tackle the use of isolation or restraint against public school students, including those at nonpublic agencies. Those bills would prohibit schools from using isolation at all and would allow physical restraint only in emergency situations. 

Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, sponsored the Senate bill after hearing from stakeholders and seeing pictures of what isolation rooms look like. 

“All these things were in response to what we know and what we’ve learned,” Wilson said. “And when you know better, you’re supposed to do better.” 

The bills would force districts to compile a report of restraint incidents to be submitted to OSPI, specifying that those reports include incidents that occurred at nonpublic agencies. Currently, as InvestigateWest reported last year, school districts that send these students away keep shoddy records of isolation and restraint at NPAs, and often don’t know how often restraint and isolation are used. Lawmakers previously argued that school districts not keeping proper records were flouting state law

Nonpublic agencies typically provide services to the most vulnerable students, who are the most likely to be restrained physically by staff or isolated. Previously, the state OSPI has urged schools to stop using physical force on students or lock them in rooms. Some school districts in Washington have stopped using restraint or isolation entirely within public schools. But even those school districts may send students to nonpublic agencies — both in Washington and out of the state — that may still restrain or isolate kids. 

Other bills this session have been introduced in response to a Seattle Times/ProPublica investigation that showed how state officials failed to address alleged abuse at the largest chain of in-state nonpublic agencies, the Northwest School of Innovative Learning. State education officials are seeking more authority over those schools in this year’s session. Senate Bill 5315, for example, would also clarify that restraint and isolation procedures apply to nonpublic agencies, and it adds other regulations meant to increase oversight of those facilities. 

Sen. Wilson sponsored that bill as well. She said it’s possible that these bills could be combined into a larger bill inclusive of all these reforms for in-state and out-of-state NPAs. 

“We have to either bring kids home and have places and spaces appropriate for them here, or if we’re finding places out of state, [remember] they’re still our children,” Wilson said. “We need to make sure whoever that contractor is, or whoever has that child under their care, is doing the best they can for that child and that family.” 

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Wilson Criscione can be reached at wilson@invw.org.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, writes for InvestigateWest.