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Oversight Committees Probe Boarding School Abuse Allegations

Jason Parrott/Tri States Public Radio
Midwest Academy in Keokuk, Iowa

Oversight committees in the Iowa House and Senate are working on bills to ensure that alleged abuse at a private boarding school in southeast Iowa never happens again.   

Midwest Academy was shut down after a raid by local, state and federal officials.     

At a statehouse hearing, lawmakers grilled representatives of two state agencies about how they might have prevented the alleged abuse.  

Before Midwest Academy was shut down, there had been suggestions that physical and sexual abuse was occurring.   Lawmakers asked a representative of the Iowa Department of Human Services why child protective services didn’t kick in.

“I very much appreciate the opportunity to chat with you this morning,” said DHS administrator Wendy Rickman.

Both DHS and the Department of Education say under current state law, they mostly couldn’t intervene at the privately-run school.

Proposed legislation would bring such schools out of the shadows. 

Rickman says DHS did address complaints of child abuse at Midwest Academy.

“We didn’t have anything in code that allowed us to shut a facility down,” Rickman said.   “But the idea that allegations of abuse and negligence were not dealt with is inaccurate.”    

However, she says any such cases are confidential.      

Clinton Democrat Mary Wolfe pushed back:

“If I was to ask you did you ever investigate an allegation of sexual abuse at this school would you be able to answer that?” Wolfe asked. 

“No,” Rickman replied.

“And if you had investigated and it had been founded would that have been information to share with local law enforcement authorities?” Wolfe continued.

“Yes,” Rickman said.

But that’s where the authority over the private facility ended.     

That also kept the Iowa Department of Education at bay.   

Jeff Berger with the DOE says Midwest Academy was not accredited, so it fell into a category similar to home schools.   He said the school applied for accreditation, but they never came forward with the evidence showing the facility was safe and secure.     

“They never got back  to us,” Bergere said, “so we never completed  a process where they would be accredited on the education side.”

And Berger says they can’t really treat a failed application as a red flag.     After all, many private schools opt not be accredited and the DOE can’t go after all of them.

“But we’re certainly open to conversation on that if you want to firm that up,”  Berger said.

Berger also described the false advertising the school engaged in, including claiming to be accredited.   But he says the state’s ability to intervene there was also limited.

Wendy Rickman describes just who those Midwest Academy students were.

“These are kids who are having behavior problems,” Rickman said.   “Parents are trying to figure out how to manage those behaviors, and these facilities give them that kind of place.”

Now those parents are suing, claiming fraud and educational malpractice.  

Proposed legislation will require certification for a new category of privately-run children’s residential centers.   

They will undergo regular inspections, and can be shut down for failing to meet fire or sanitation standards, or rules on restraint and seclusion.   

Students reported being confined to isolation rooms in substandard conditions.  

The legislation will also require such schools to be state accredited or contract with a local school district for services.      

Jeff Berger at the DOE is optimistic.

“We think the bill will go a long way toward firming up what we perceive as a gap in coverage,” Berger said. 

Backers say the legislation could help the state get a  handle on just how many such privately-run facilities may be operating, which up to now has been hard to discern.