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Education
WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

Report Details Abuse & Neglect At Aurora Residential School For Students With Disabilities

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It’s only peaceful at bedtime and the day is “chaos.” She acts out because she’s lonely and “would like to start a new life and go somewhere else” but doesn’t know what steps to take to leave.

That’s what one Northern Illinois Academy student told the state-appointed investigators at Equip for Equality. In May, the independent Illinois watchdog group released a report detailing neglect and abuse at NIA, a residential school for students with disabilities in Aurora.

Others at the facility talked about being shoved to the ground by staff and having personal items like family photographs taken away.

The report says students were often improperly restrained and secluded at the Academy. Staffing at the private, for-profit facility was inadequate, and staff members were insufficient in reporting incidents. Equip for Equality said they lacked meaningful programming and treatment planning.

“We are an incredibly institutional state,” said Zena Naiditch, the president of Equip for Equality. Her organization has been investigating state-run facilities and providing legal assistance to people with disabilities for over 30 years.

“When we brought some of our lawsuits, we were like the most institutional state in the country for people with developmental disabilities. And we segregate, isolate and put into institutions, large numbers of people that in other states would be living in integrated community housing,” she said.

NIA’s parent company, Sequel Youth & Family Services, has closed a dozen schools in the past few years due to reports of mistreatment and five states no longer allow students to be sent to their facilities. Northern Illinois Academy did not respond to a WNIJ interview request.

There were 51 Illinois students at Northern Illinois Academy, 17 of whom were placed there by public school districts. Other students were placed by other state agencies like DCFS and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Illinois agencies have started transitioning students out of the institution. The Illinois State Board of Education changed its status to “non-approved” which means public schools can’t place students in NIA or receive state reimbursement for having them at the facility.

This isn’t the first report Equip for Equality has filed about Northern Illinois Academy. They just wrote about the Aurora facility’s lack of programming and inaccurate reporting in late 2019. Carmen Ayala is Illinois’ Superintendent of Education. She said after those initial findings, they tried to give them the opportunity to improve conditions.

“The corrective action entails providing training for their staff, including the use of appropriate behavioral interventions. They had to update their policies and procedures for health and safety, and they had to provide regular updates on staffing,” Ayala said. “And they did make progress in the positive direction, but unfortunately, they were not able to sustain this progress.”

Ayala said that by early 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were getting complaints about NIA again. That’s when the state reached out to Naiditch at Equip for Equality to continue monitoring.

“A lot of times what you see is facilities that start doing better, but the state players believe that as soon as they can no longer watch them because they're now meeting standards and they have to walk away, that they're going to get back down,” said Naiditch.

Public information obtained by WNIJ shows 726 Illinois students with disabilities live at approved private special education facilities. There are nearly 150 private residential schools for students with disabilities in Illinois alone.

Naiditch said some state-run oversight systems are underfunded and may not be capable of fulfilling their full responsibilities.

“We still have lots of kids coming out of school who, frankly, are not being very well educated in special ed, in terms of really meeting standards,” she said.

She also said the path to reform can be especially long and complicated in Illinois, even after a report detailing abuse.

“There can be lots of delays, the legislature has passed lots of laws. You can't close an institution without an economic impact study where at the hearings they don't talk about economic impact, they talk about how great the facility is and what great care they provide,” Naiditch said. “Things get very politicized in Illinois, which makes it harder to do what we do.”

Ayala with ISBE said the state is doing its best to protect students and that there are appropriate safeguards in place.

“We take the safety and well-being of our students very seriously. We will work with all of our facilities to provide the support, but when it comes down to the safety of our children -- it’s non-negotiable,” she said. “Sometimes we have to make the tough decisions that have to be made for the best interest of our students.”

Several Illinois agencies like DCFS and IDHS fund services for youth at Northern Illinois Academy. Equip for Equality’s report says that if they continue, they need to invest more money to make sure they solve the school’s systemic problems. Otherwise, they recommend a phased closure of the facility. Since the report's release, NIA has announced they plan to forfeit the school's license and close.