A voice crackled over Caitlin Smith’s walkie-talkie.
“It’s time for Oliver.”
Smith looked around her classroom at Roanoke Minnick School to make sure that Oliver Sargent had all of his belongings. She stuffed his backpack with a sketchbook of detailed drawings, folders of his work in the classroom and a new set of colored pencils — a gift she got him for his last day of school.
The bag overflowed with tokens of his three years at the private special education day school. Each paper and each sketchbook marked signs of his progress, which meant it was finally time for him to return to his public school.
“Oh my God, I’m crying,” Smith said as she and her aide, David Tudge, led 14-year-old Oliver to their classroom door for the last time this past spring.
Other teachers came to their doors to say goodbye. Some clapped and cheered Oliver on as he passed. He seemed excited by the commotion, but to him it was just another school day with more distractions than usual. He walked to the front door of the school building and out to the car waiting at the curb.
Principal Ashley Wittl-Osborne stood by the door with her walkie-talkie.
“Oh, gosh, this sucks,” she said, wiping tears away. “It’s such a good thing, but it really sucks. It never gets easier.”
Minnick is a private special education day school, one of 85 across Virginia, that works with children whose behavior is too challenging for public schools. Their goal is to teach the students how to better manage their behavior so they can return to their home schools, like Oliver. But that rarely happens.
With each passing year, public schools place more children in private special education schools where they tend to stay for years — some until they turn 22 and age out of the system.
These programs are costly, with tuition split between the state and the child’s locality. The money comes from the Children’s Services Act, legislation from the 1990s that created a statewide pool of funds to provide social services for children.
Because of the way Virginia’s laws are written, CSA money can be used for special education at private, but not public, schools. Public schools can then opt out of building intensive, and costly, special education programs, and instead send difficult children to private schools — all without having to pick up the tuition tab.
In 2019, more than 4,000 students were enrolled in private day schools throughout the state at a median annual cost of $54,000 per child, according to a November study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s watchdog agency.
The recent increase in private special education enrollment has significantly driven up CSA’s budget.
CSA spending on private special education has more than doubled since 2010, growing about 14% per year from $81 million to $186 million a decade later. It accounts for nearly half of all CSA spending.
Following the JLARC report, legislators targeted CSA and special education for reforms, but workers in these fields are frustrated with what they see as undue scrutiny of their work and the real need for more services in schools and the community.
“We’ve struggled over the years with the focus being on why private day costs so much without looking at the real stories of the kids who need our services,” Wittl-Osborne said. “I’m proud of our program, but the focus on the cost can sting a little bit.”
‘A rare and special thing’
Oliver is a tall, blonde teenager with a lot to say. He has severe autism, but he repeats phrases and words that he hears from classmates, his parents and movie characters — like Forky in “Toy Story 4,” one of his favorites. He makes eye contact and engages with others, but he doesn’t understand social rules or personal space. He isn’t able to adapt to a normal classroom environment and wouldn’t do well there, his mother Daphne said.
The Sargents moved to Roanoke County from South Carolina in 2017. Before the move, Oliver was in an elementary school with a robust special education program and did well. But his new school in Roanoke County did not have the same accommodations and Daphne said the transition was difficult for him.
Oliver wasn’t allowed to ride the school bus because he threw things at the driver. When Daphne took him to Penn Forest Elementary School in the morning, she had to fight him every step of the way. She had to pull him out of the car as he kicked and screamed. Afterward, she’d often pull into the South County Library parking lot and cry.
The school called the Sargents nearly every day to pick up Oliver. He would knock things off his desk, try to leave the classroom or aggressively squeeze the teacher’s arm. If he didn’t have a separate place to calm down, he sometimes would try to hit the teacher.
Once, Oliver playfully pushed another student on the playground and he was sent home. He wasn’t angry or upset, he just didn’t know the right way to play, Daphne said.
Over time, it became a positive reinforcement: Oliver learned that if he acted out, he could go home.
When the school’s staff suggested Minnick, the option scared Daphne.
“The idea of private day was foreign to us because that wasn’t an option in South Carolina,” she said. “But the public school did really help us and cared enough to help us find a safe place for him.”
Wittl-Osborne said public school staff referred Oliver because they didn’t feel like they could maintain his behavior and also educate him safely.
“His mom was extremely hesitant to have Oliver come to Minnick,” she said. “This is my 14th school year and we’ve really evolved over time, but there are some people in the community that think Minnick serves the bad kids, the rough kids. We’ve evolved beyond that.”
Children placed in private special education have behavior problems that many public schools are not equipped to handle. Sometimes children kick, scream, throw stuff or yell. Other times they act aggressively toward other students or staff, destroy property or run away. Some, like Oliver, have autism or other learning challenges that require more intensive instruction.
And others have mental health illnesses or have experienced trauma that interfere with their success at public schools.
Daphne said the Minnick staff told her from the beginning that it was a temporary placement and the goal was for Oliver to return to his public school.
“I want Oliver to have the most normal possible life,” she said. “If he stayed at Minnick, all he’s ever going to be is a kid with autism that has behavior problems. My goal was always to have him back in the public school setting because that means their program worked. But I think we’re a little bit of an exception to the rule.”
Transitioning students back to their home school after being in a private placement can be difficult.
Wittl-Osborne said many parents are hesitant to enroll in a private day school. But once they see their child being successful, sometimes for the first time ever, it can be hard to convince them that it’s time to return and they won’t consent to the transition.
Other times the public school staff remembers the child’s misbehaviors and is hesitant to admit them again.
Until recently, Virginia law did not allow CSA funds to be used in public schools at all, which meant that some of the services needed to transition kids back to public school — like one-on-one aides and transportation — were ineligible for CSA money.
Wittl-Osborne said she and her staff implement slow transitions and stay involved until the student seems to be thriving in the new school. For Oliver, they took him on tours of his new school, introduced him to the staff members and teachers, and created a book for him with pictures of his new classroom to create a sense of familiarity.
“Oliver is a great example of the system working as it should,” Wittl-Osborne said. “It’s such a rare and special thing.”
Children served through the Children’s Services Act are evaluated using a statewide assessment model. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of children who reported experiencing trauma grew by 20%. The number of Virginia students identified with autism increased by 124% between 2009 and 2018.
These diagnoses can cause children to need more services, like therapy or one-on-one aides, or to stay in private day schools longer, which costs more over the long term.
The JLARC report found that enrollment increases were the largest driver in spending growth. According to the report, private day school enrollment has grown 50% over the past 10 years, with the number of students growing twice as fast in the last five years as in the previous five. Private day school students account for a larger proportion of kids served through the Children’s Services Act and the program’s total spending than they did 10 years ago.
Virginia places a higher percentage of students with disabilities in more restrictive out-of-school settings, like private day schools, than 37 other states. The schools are considered more restrictive because children do not have access to their neurotypical peers and are sometimes educated outside of their community.
Virginia’s goal, as set by the U.S. Department of Education, is to place no more than 2.5% of students with disabilities in out-of-school placements, but the state’s rate is nearly twice that.
The system in Virginia amounts to unfair segregation of students with disabilities, said Tonya Milling, executive director of the ARC of Virginia, an advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities. Because CSA funds cannot be used in public schools to provide the services these kids need, students are forced to go to more restrictive placements.
“We see that as an unequal and frankly discriminatory practice,” she said. “You can only get those additional services if you’re willing to be in a private, segregated setting. We have questioned, and feel pretty strongly, that the way it’s set up in Virginia, it really does probably break the law.”
Only 13 school divisions in the state have programs that could be used as alternatives to private day school placements. Some school districts operate separate schools that offer similar services and others work with nearby localities to create regional programs.
In localities with access to one or both of these options, the private day placement rate was lower. But only eight school divisions have access to both. Fifty have access to one and 41 have access to neither, according to a survey done by JLARC. Thirty-one school divisions did not respond to the survey.
As more children require special education, the state has slowly cut those funds. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2019, state funding for the average school division fell from $7 million to $5.8 million.
“School systems struggle to provide the services needed, and if they were adequately funded would be able to educate these students in their home base school,” one local CSA official told JLARC staff. “It seems odd to pay private providers to do the work that should be provided by the public system if funding and support from [the Department of Education] were available.”
The JLARC report spurred action among legislators in the General Assembly during the last regular session. Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, said the results of the report were eye-opening.
“I don’t think the report said what people anticipated it would say,” Mason said. “The report shined a light on these private day schools and we thought it would make them look like the bad guy, but it wasn’t that at all.”
Instead, the focus was on why children need the services and why they seem to have more severe needs. Mason said his bill took up five of JLARC’s recommendations, including licensing private day schools and standardized reporting of tuition rates.
The bill also created a work group to study whether the funds used for special education should be transferred from the Children’s Services Act to the Department of Education, which controls special education placements but doesn’t pay for them.
“School divisions do not have to bear any of the cost of these costlier placements because they have no financial incentive to invest in resources that can better enable them to serve students with the most challenging behaviors,” the report said.
Transferring these funds to the Education Department would help alleviate this issue, according to lawmakers and advocates. JLARC staff said that shifting the money would prompt the department to come up with solutions for the lack of special education services in some public schools.
Mason’s work group will also consider whether to allow the use of CSA funds in public schools, he said. In the meantime, students transitioning back to public school will be able to use CSA funds for a period of 12 months.
ARC of Virginia’s Milling said the effort is a step in the right direction, but she worries whether it goes far enough. A student’s needs will not disappear in those 12 months, and she said funds should follow the student, not be tied to where the student is placed.
“The funding going away sets that kid and the school system up for failure,” she said.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, introduced a bill that would have set up a pilot program for using CSA money in public schools, but the legislation did not pass.
He said he heard from both parents and Roanoke County school officials that they were interested in participating in the pilot program.
“It wouldn’t have been something that would have been for everyone,” he said. “I want to increase choices for parents so they can make the best decision for their children. Parents wanted it and county schools wanted to offer it.”
Private day school may be a locality’s only option for a student who can’t be served, but even then such placements aren’t always available.
Wittl-Osborne said her school educates some students from Pulaski. The school teaches them vocational skills and takes them on tours of job sites, but all of the opportunities are in Roanoke.
“It doesn’t help a kid from Pulaski to make connections in Roanoke,” she said. “We want them to be successful in their community.”
Private day school can also be the step between public school and residential care if there aren’t services to help a child in the community. One of the goals of a place like Minnick is to prevent placement in a residential facility, which is considered an even more restrictive placement and can be detrimental to kids who don’t need it.
Ray Ratke, CEO of Encircle, which runs Minnick schools statewide, said students who come into the nonprofit’s schools have common issues that could be helped through other services.
“They have struggles within their families, behavioral issues, emotional disturbances,” he said. “If you had better supports addressing those issues you may have less of a need for special education services.”
But until then, enrollment and costs are not likely to go down.
“It’s really about making that bigger investment,” Milling said. “Our job is to help people with disabilities access the world that exists, we don’t need to build separate institutions and segregate them. They have the right to live in the world that we all live in. They just need extra help and support when accessing it.”
A fresh start, with challenges
Oliver returned to public school in Roanoke County the Monday after spring break. His mother said the first three days went well, but on Thursday, Oliver became overwhelmed.
At Hidden Valley Middle School, students with autism deescalate and take a break from the classroom in a padded wrestling room. But the door is locked. Daphne said Oliver became agitated and as his teacher was trying to unlock the door, he hit her.
He was suspended and sent home from school.
Daphne was out of town at the time, and her husband couldn’t get away from work immediately. When he did arrive, Oliver was back in his classroom eating lunch with the other students and had calmed down. But he still had to be sent home for three days.
When she heard what happened, Daphne said she couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”
In Roanoke County, special education students are held to the same standards as other students — which means if Oliver acts aggressively, he is suspended.
According to the county’s student conduct code, “regular disciplinary procedures must be followed” even for students with disabilities.
His mother said this isn’t an effective strategy for Oliver, who doesn’t understand that staying home from school is a punishment for bad behavior, especially because he returned to the classroom afterward. Instead, she thinks Oliver needs to learn that he will not go home and has to learn to self-regulate so he can stay with his classmates.
“The county doesn’t seem to be able to handle kids on the spectrum,” she said. “If you have a child that has any behavior issue that needs to be worked out, they just ship them off.”
After the suspension, the Sargents met with the school and their Individualized Education Program team to try to come up with a solution. But because of the policy that would require Oliver to be sent home whenever he showed aggressive behavior, the family didn’t think it would work out. They recently moved into Roanoke and Oliver is attending Patrick Henry High School this fall.
“His teacher was great, but the administration did not want him there,” Daphne said. “That’s just how I felt. I didn’t want to go through another school year where he was getting suspended. That’s not good for him. The county schools are great, they’re just deficient when it comes to training and policy for kids like Oliver. It isn’t right how they handle it.”
County special education director Elisabeth Harman said every child’s situation and behavior are unique, so she could not make a generalization about whether the policy is too harsh.
“I would say most administrators give discretion to the individuals at the school, but there are behaviors that might result in removal from school,” she said. “If a student has more than 10 suspensions, you have to look at whether it’s related to the disability. And that’s universal across the state of Virginia.”
At Patrick Henry, Oliver is in classes with more than 40 kids on the spectrum and with other disabilities. Daphne said the school will try to integrate Oliver into elective classes, like art, with other kids in the general student population, and he switches classes and teachers throughout the day.
The special education students also have their own hallway so he’s less likely to get overwhelmed. And the city does not have the same policy as the county, Daphne said.
“We’re really excited about the program they have there,” she said. “Oliver has outgrown Minnick and now it’s about working out this transition. I know he can do it. He doesn’t need to be at private day anymore.”
Alison Graham is The Secular Society Investigative Fellow at The Roanoke Times.