SALEM — A boarding school for troubled teens in Southern Oregon has a history of harsh discipline and other violations of its license, from letting students go hungry, to forcing them to spend 12 hours at a time starting at a wall, according to state regulators.
The Oregon Department of Human Services detailed the allegations in an “intent to revoke” letter to Scotts Valley School south of Eugene on Friday. The letter set in motion a process to revoke the program’s state license, unless Scotts Valley School can demonstrate it fixed the problems to the state’s satisfaction.
It is the second such letter DHS sent to a licensed children’s services program this week. On Wednesday, both DHS and the Oregon Health Authority released letters outlining problems to Youth Villages, which operates foster care programs for children in Lake Oswego and Oregon City. The allegations included lack of supervision of a suicidal child and repeated sexual intercourse between clients.
Both Youth Villages and Scotts Valley School were on an internal list of problematic state-licensed programs, which DHS managers created in order to track the issues. News organizations filed public records requests for the list after it came to light during a Nov. 16 legislative hearing. DHS conducted a Nov. 24 review of the children’s services programs on the list, then released the names of those programs on Dec. 3.
DHS officials decided to take action against the programs amid scrutiny of the agency’s handling of problems at another foster care agency, Give Us This Day in Portland.
Scotts Valley School had been flagged for problems more than 30 out the last 36 months, more than any other DHS-licensed facility, according to information provided to lawmakers during a Nov. 16 hearing. The letter released Friday provides a glimpse into the state’s long-running issues with the school.
Dave Thomas, executive director of Scotts Valley School, said that many of the state’s allegations are false, and the state ignored documentation that the school was in compliance with licensing standards. “The major stuff is not substantiated,” Thomas said. “This is going to court.”
State investigators from both the DHS licensing division and state Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigation visited Scotts Valley School many times in the six years since the facility opened. DHS listed several situations that violated state rules on discipline at therapeutic boarding schools.
In 2010, the state Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigation looked into a report that a school employee “grabbed a student by the neck and yelled ‘freak out, freak out,’” according to DHS.
The employee, who no longer works at the school, confirmed he had done so and explained to investigators that he “just tries different things with students until something works and he was trying to provoke a reaction from the student.” State investigators noted the student “did not report it affected his mental health or well-being.”
The state investigated a report in 2011 that a school employee beat a student with a belt, but the findings were “inconclusive” because the employee described the incident as “horseplay” and the student’s statements were “inconsistent.”
State investigators discovered in 2012 that the school required certain students to sit and stare at a wall, without talking to anyone, for approximately 12 hours a day. One student told state investigators the student spent two weeks straight “on the Wall,” and other students said they could be assigned to “the Wall” for up to a month.
The Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigation determined use of “the Wall” was abusive and worked with the school to stop the practice.
“Staff reported this was used until a student was ready to comply and participate, but students reported that it was used as a punitive and disciplinary tool,” DHS wrote.
The state found during another investigation in 2013 that a school employee “physically tipped a student out of a desk and pushed him in the face,” according to DHS. Regulators appear to have considered the student’s behavior a mitigating factor, because the report “noted that the student had been intentionally annoying the staff for a considerable period of time and had a history of so doing.”
Investigators again required Scotts Valley School to take corrective action because staff were assigning vulgar nicknames to students during required “seminars.
There were multiple reports of students acting as staff, which is prohibited by the state. In 2013, students reportedly helped school employees place another student in restraints. In August, state licensing staff observed students “acting as staff and punishing other students.”
“Additionally, female students reported that one student had indicated she had suffered from a rape,” regulators wrote. “Other students confronted and berated the reporter until she ‘admitted’ to lying. No staff intervened during this time or checked on the welfare of the reporter.”
State regulators noted in August that the girls’ dormitory had bed bugs, and a student had multiple bites on her legs. “The Director, Dave Thomas, indicated that he was aware of the issue, but it is unclear when this issue arose and whether the school acted efficiently to resolve the issue,” DHS wrote.
Therapeutic boarding schools are supposed to provide snacks under state rules, but regulators found in August that school staff refused to provide snacks to students who forgot to prepare snacks. Lack of food was a frequent problem over the years, when the state reviewed the program.
“Throughout all of these reviews, students consistently report being hungry,” DHS staff wrote in the letter. “The issue regarding food is pervasive enough that DHS has concerns the lack of food may cause serious health issues for the students or reflect a neglectful environment.”
State regulators also found the school repeatedly fell short of state standards for documenting that employees passed background checks, completed training and other personnel information since the school opened in 2009. In one case, an employee conducted his own reference checks.
Another long-running problem was the school’s failure to consistently track whether kids were receiving their medications. State regulators found problems with the medication logs during their first review in 2009, and regulators wrote that this “continues to be an ongoing concern.”
Thomas said DHS has too few licensing coordinators — three, to oversee more than 200 licensed programs — to run a good compliance program. State licensing staff visited Scotts Valley School as part of a review in August, but Thomas said he did not receive the report on the visit until Nov. 16, which happened to be the same day DHS officials testified before a legislative committee in Salem.
“If I wrote a report three months after I visited the site, I don’t think I could make it accurately,” Thomas said.
DHS spokesman Gene Evans said the number of licensing coordinators “is low.” Evans said DHS repeatedly worked with Scotts Valley School over the years to fix problems, but the school continued to slip back out of compliance.
“Finally, you just reach a point where you need to say enough is enough, basically,” Evans said.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.