IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Department of Education officials were aware since at least 2011 about allegations of mistreatment at a now-shuttered boarding school for troubled teenagers but believed they didn’t have authority to act, records released Thursday show.
The department considered Midwest Academy in Keokuk an unregulated home school that wasn’t subject to oversight, including rules that limit the use of detention and restraint of students, according to complaints and emails provided to The Associated Press under the open records law.
Department lawyer Thomas Mayes ruled in 2011 that the agency could not address a complaint alleging that a 15-year-old boy with autism had been improperly kept in seclusion, restrained and harshly disciplined due to his disability. He wrote that “no matter how desirable it might be” to extend its oversight to Midwest Academy, lawmakers had not given the department power to regulate non-accredited schools.
In 2012, a citizen called the department to ask why the academy was allowed to continue operating and to report rumors that students were being abused and humiliated. The department’s deputy director Jeff Berger told colleagues that “this isn’t our issue.”
“We don’t accredit them and have no jurisdiction, so if there is alleged abuse, it will require someone there to report it to (Department of Human Services),” he wrote. “We have no stake on this.”
Department of Education official Barbara Byrd wrote that she was disturbed by that complaint because she thought the academy had closed after ending a relationship with Keokuk public schools years earlier. She said the department had previously received “a steady stream of questions and concerns from local citizens, parents, and families,” adding that, “It was a very uncomfortable, questionable situation.”
Berger said Thursday that state officials weren’t aware of the full scope of the problems at Midwest Academy until recently. The department had talks with the school over a decade about whether it would become accredited, but its leaders refused to agree to follow state laws governing student safety and restraint, he said.
It therefore remained outside the reach of the department, which doesn’t “intervene locally on abuse allegations,” Berger said.
The records add detail about how Midwest Academy, a for-profit school that cost $5,000 in monthly tuition, stayed in business despite mounting concerns. They were released hours after the Iowa Senate unanimously passed a bill to give the department and other state agencies more authority to oversee such facilities in the future.
The academy abruptly closed in January after state and federal agents descended on its campus to seize documents and interview many of its 100 students. Police are investigating allegations that academy owner Ben Trane sexually assaulted a 17-year-old former student. Trane hasn’t responded to interview requests.
Investigators are also looking into whether academy leaders engaged in a pattern of child endangerment by putting students in small “isolation boxes” for days at a time, and whether parents were improperly billed for counseling services that weren’t provided during the seclusion. Former students have told AP that confinement in those rooms prompted many to attempt suicide and haunted them for years.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said it’s an open question whether agencies “exercised the authority that they had in a timely fashion.” He said that “adverse reports” had swirled around the academy for years.
In 2013, the parent of a former student complained to the department that Trane retaliated against her for talking to other parents about concerns, including living conditions and untrained staff. She said Trane was refusing to provide a transcript showing the girl completed 8th grade, making it impossible for her to enroll in high school.
The parent wanted to know how to get the transcript and whether “you have had complaints about Midwest Academy in the past.”
Mayes wrote that the situation “may be a violation of consumer law” but the department had no jurisdiction.
AP reporter Barbara Rodriguez contributed from Des Moines.
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