The administration building, seen on October 18, 2017, at Boys State Training School in Eldora. (Liz Martin / The Gazette)
Amid a surge in assault and violent behavior at the state Boys State Training School in Eldora, state officials are now asking a federal judge to place students overnight in a unit that was once used to isolate teenagers as a form of punishment.
In the first quarter of 2021, there were 25 to 50 assaults at the school every month – about one or two assaults a day, every day for three months, according to court records. The average rate of youth-on-youth assaults at the facility in the first quarter was more than five times higher than in 2018 and 2019, and the rate of assaults on employees was similar.
“The current level of violence and disorder at (the school) is completely derailing service delivery at the school,” wrote an independent observer in a June report to the court. “The considerable risk of damage for young people and employees requires quick action. The violence at (the school) has serious consequences for the affected and injured young people and employees. “
Boys State Training School is under judicial surveillance as a result of a 2017 lawsuit filed against the Iowa Department of Human Services, which operates the school for youth in need, as well as the on-campus accommodation and treatment facilities. The lawsuit alleged that the young people who were housed and brought up there were not receiving adequate psychiatric care.
The State Training School for Boys has existed on the rural Eldora campus since 1873. (Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
The case was settled in 2020 when U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose held DHS liable for violations of children’s constitutional rights at the school. She wrote that the agency’s use of a restraint “shocked the conscience” and “tortured” it.
Rose ordered the state to implement a detailed recovery plan to improve the school’s practices, staffing, training, and internal oversight. She also appointed Dr. Kelly Dedel, a juvenile justice consultant, to oversee state compliance with this remedial plan.
Warning of the monitor
In a June report to Judge Rose published in a judicial file last month, Dedel warned that efforts to improve mental health programs at the school were “being severely undermined by the facility’s unsafe conditions.”
Dedel wrote that the school is “characterized by frequent youth violence and other types of disorders that, while not causing injury, are nonetheless destabilizing, stressful and counterproductive”.
Topics include sexual assault, at least one such case leading to criminal charges; verbal threat of physical harm; Spraying others with unidentified liquids; Throwing objects; kicking and punching others in the body, head, and face; and cases of suffocation.
“Fear among youth, fear among staff, and constant program interruptions caused by behavior itself, and the need for staff to respond to incidents, hinder both youth and staff’s ability to participate in service,” wrote Dedel in their report. “The current level of youth violence and disorder hinders the ability to make meaningful progress in meeting the requirements of the recovery plan. Even the highest quality therapeutic and rehabilitation services will do little in a chaotic and unsafe environment. “
Dedel called on DHS to take “immediate steps to improve plant safety” and made a number of recommendations to the agency.
The DHS is now asking the court for permission to change the agreed recovery plan, pointing out that this will prevent the school from holding teenagers overnight at Corbett Miller Hall, where teenagers were previously held in isolation for punishment.
The latest court records stated that Corbett Miller Hall was once again used as an overnight accommodation “for certain violent and aggressive students”. The agency says “separation, not seclusion, is a key strategy to helping challenging, aggressive students,” and housing violent youth at Corbett Miller Hall, separate from other youth in nearby cottages, will help.
According to DHS, Disability Rights Iowa opposed this idea, but the two sides are still in talks. In her report, Dedel said that while the previous use of isolation at Corbett Miller Hall “did not reflect good practice for dealing with teens with serious, recurring behavior problems,” it did allow for higher staffing levels and restrict the movement of teens across campus on.
On July 21, then Eldora facility manager, Wendy Leiker, proposed the purchase of $ 128,000 in new furniture for the Corbett Miller Hall to reduce the “fix” appearance of the building and create a “friendlier atmosphere ” to accomplish. The DHS said last week that Leiker resigned during a confidential staff investigation. The agency did not provide any information.
Dedel’s report found that while some of the assaults were directly related to the diagnoses and behaviors of the adolescents affected, the “level of violence and disorder in the facility and the daily trauma experienced by the staff and adolescents” was a concern Treatment of these individuals have hindered behaviors.
According to their report, the injury rate per 100 workers at the Eldora plant rose from 27.1 in 2018 to 42.5 in 2021. The report also cites written comments from a worker at the Eldora plant.
Employees of the school “feel very insecure in their job,” reported the worker. “Just today an employee told me that she was leaving STS because she felt incredibly insecure and was threatened with death by a student yesterday. I was in cottages when several students banded together to verbally and physically attack both staff and students, and I remember looking those staff in the eyes multiple times and seeing what I can only describe as deep fear. Many employees take their frustration out on me every day. Many are looking for a job elsewhere where they are not afraid to go to work and wonder whether they will be seriously injured that night or whether their colleague will be injured. “
Between January 2020 and March 2021, according to Dedel’s report, 52 youth workers at the school were fired, six retired and 20 fired. On average, these workers had almost eight years of experience at the time of their departure and represented “an enormous proportion” of the school’s workforce, ”writes Dedel in her report. She added that roughly half of the school’s current workforce are new to juvenile justice.
Dedel also noted that the problem of increasing violence “appears to be caused by good faith efforts to eradicate harmful practices” used by staff in the past without a new strategy for dealing with youth with recurring aggression Implement behavior. “This started a vicious cycle in which violence and disorder hamper the development and implementation of the very practices designed to improve conditions in the home,” she wrote.
Dedel has recommended that DHS take a number of emergency measures to address the problem, including creating programs to manage personal trauma and workers’ need for emotional support immediately after a violent incident.
The report also calls on DHS to improve collaboration among staff from all disciplines, provide training and team building activities for staff, and develop a program for youth with highly aggressive behavior.
In court records, the DHS has acknowledged a “statistically significant increase in shackles and assaults” occurring at the facility Thursday through Sunday every week. According to the agency, there were an average of nine attacks on student employees per month between January 2020 and July 2020. Between August 2020 and February 2021 there was an average of 15 such attacks per month, an increase of 65 percent.
The agency says it is hiring two activity specialists, one of whom is specifically responsible for safety and security. Since June, all youth counselors and supervisors have had to work an evening shift on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday every month.
The lawsuit that led to the relief plan was filed by the national child protection organization Children’s Rights, Disability Rights Iowa, and the law firm Ropes & Gray.
After Judge Rose ruled the DHS on this case, he ruled that the state must pay nearly $ 5 million in legal costs to plaintiffs in this case. It is not known how much the state spent defending the actions of the DHS.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.