Seven school districts in California and Washington state said they do not plan to send more students to a Utah facility for troubled teens where a girl recently died.
Taylor Goodridge, 17, who was originally from Washington, died in December while attending Diamond Ranch Academy in Hurricane, Utah. The boarding school, which Utah officials say is now at risk of losing its license because of complaints about delayed medical care, draws students from across the country. This includes some children whose public school districts pay the $12,000-a-month tuition because there are no local programs to meet their needs.
Eighteen school districts spent a combined $2.6 million over the past three years to send children with emotional and behavioral problems to Diamond Ranch Academy, according to data from GovSpend, which tracks local government spending through open records requests. Almost all of the sites were in California and Washington.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services placed Diamond Ranch Academy’s license on probation shortly after Taylor’s death. In February, the department concluded in an inspection that the facility had failed “to provide and seek necessary medical care for an ill client who died several weeks after the initial onset of symptoms.” Former staff members previously told NBC News that Taylor had been ill in the weeks before her death, but Diamond Ranch Academy did not take her off campus for medical treatment until she collapsed on Dec. 20. he died later that day.
The Department of Health and Human Services called the report “extreme” and said it was conducting additional inspections of the facilities. In the meantime, Diamond Ranch Academy remains open but is not allowed to admit new students, according to the department.
Bill Frazier, an attorney for the academy, said he has appealed the violation in an administrative proceeding, but declined to comment further. The facility previously declined to comment on the allegations from former staff members and students, citing privacy laws.
“Diamond Ranch has fully and transparently cooperated with all agency requests while involved in these administrative and judicial proceedings,” Frazier said. “We’re going to keep doing it.”
Diamond Ranch Academy, a for-profit program, is one of several out-of-state facilities certified by the California and Washington departments of education to place children with special needs.
After Taylor’s death, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction suspended new placements at Diamond Ranch Academy, pending a further investigation by Utah authorities. The California Department of Education declined to comment on the academy, but said it conducts site visits to facilities on its list at least two out of three years.
In Alameda County, California, the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District spent $352,117 to send two students to Diamond Ranch Academy for services the district could not provide after doing an online inquiry about the facility in 2019.
“While present and upon their return, assessments of student experiences did not lead to cause for concern or additional monitoring,” Livermore Valley Joint Unified spokeswoman Michelle Dawson said in a statement cited by NBC News. News article about Diamond Ranch Academy. “The death of a student is tragic and your article describes some serious historical allegations of negligence. In light of this new information, we would certainly hesitate to enroll a student at this school in the future.”
NBC News previously reported that Diamond Ranch Academy has been accused in multiple lawsuits over the past decade of abusing children and restricting their ability to communicate with their families. The facility has denied wrongdoing, disputed some of those allegations and reached out-of-court settlements in several cases, while two other lawsuits are pending.
In addition to the Livermore Valley, other districts that have spent thousands of dollars to place students at Diamond Ranch Academy also expressed reservations. The Dublin Unified School District, also in Alameda County, said it would look into allegations of child abuse at the academy if it is recommended for placement in the future. The Laguna Beach Unified, Irvine Unified and Newport-Mesa Unified school districts in Orange County, Calif., and the Camas and Bellevue school districts in Washington said they have no plans to place a student at the Utah facility.
Several California districts that spent more than $100,000 from 2020 to 2022 to place children at Diamond Ranch Academy — including the Calaveras County Office of Education and William S. Hart Union High School in Los Angeles County — declined to say how they rated the facility or whether they would send students in the future.
Allan Fleck, the director of special services for the school district in Camas, a small town outside Portland, Oregon, said he had no problems placing children at Diamond Ranch Academy while working in another district. He said it is sometimes necessary to send children with special needs to facilities hundreds of miles away because there are no local alternatives.
Records collected by GovSpend showed that many of the students sent to Diamond Ranch Academy had individualized education plans. That means they likely had already tried different types of classroom placements in their home district, but needed more specialized treatment, said Jill Rowland, an attorney at the nonprofit Alliance for Children’s Rights, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free legal advice. services.
“The point of going somewhere intensive like this is to learn the skills to be able to function in a more positive way at a lower level of care in a community setting,” Rowland said.
He added, “Its out-of-state nature, however, is scary because it’s not eye-catching.”
Both California and Washington took steps in 2020 to stop sending youth from the foster care and juvenile justice systems to out-of-state facilities, but the changes did not extend to children with disabilities sent out of state by school districts.
“In our ideal world, we would have the state and federal funding to provide services to students here in our district,” said Shannon McMinimee, general counsel for the Bellevue School District in Washington. “Unfortunately, we are in a situation where mental health and behavioral support for children is drastically underfunded.”
The Washington Office of the Commissioner of Public Instruction said it supports a bill that passed the Senate this week that would expand its oversight powers to facilities like Diamond Ranch Academy that accept Washington students with individualized education plans.
The office added that there are no Washington state students currently receiving special education services at Diamond Ranch Academy and will determine next steps after the Utah Department of Health and Human Services completes its review.