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An environment ‘ripe for abuse’ | Warren County school sues Education Department after scathing investigation

Superintendent calls state findings ‘malpractice’ for students with mental health conditions
daniel hughes warren county
Tom Isaacs Superintendent
Meghan Myers Warren County
Posted at 3:28 PM, May 13, 2024

HAMILTON TWP., Ohio — Daniel Hughes is sitting on the grass. He’s watching “Cocomelon” in his backyard, and his iPad is covered in Yogurt. His parents say that’s his favorite food, and one of the reasons why he goes through multiple outfits a day.

Daniel is 15 years old.

He has a severe form of autism, and he doesn’t speak. His parents say he has the cognitive ability of about a 4-year-old.

Still, Kellie Hughes believes her son deserves a proper education. Something she says he's not getting at the Warren County Educational Service Center, where he currently goes to school.

"When he got there it went downhill,” Hughes said.

daniel hughes warren county
Daniel Hughes plays in the backyard with his dad, Brian Hughes. Daniel has a sever form of autism and attends the Warren County Educational Service Center, where his parents say he's languished.

Daniel's parents are not the only ones who feel this way. Allegations of improper restraint and padded “calming” rooms with no air conditioning led to a state investigation about how the school system educates its students with disabilities.

Kristin Hildebrant, an attorney for Disability Rights Ohio, says her agency started investigating after multiple calls from parents.

During visits to the school buildings, Disability Rights Ohio found students watching YouTube, playing computer games or sleeping. Both employees and students described a “tense and unsafe learning environment,” according to documents obtained by WCPO.

"It ends up being this kind of dumping ground for students who have high needs,” Hildebrant said. “And the longer they go without services and supports that they need, the less likely it is that they're going to make good progress.”

Hildebrant said a review of ESC records revealed most students made minimal progress toward school goals, and many of those goals were written exactly the same way for a number of different students with different needs.

One former employee told us she was admonished for advocating for students in learning plan meetings.

"I've never had an experience like this at any place I've worked – ever,” said Meghan Myers, an occupational therapist who worked at the ESC for five years.

During that time, Myers tried to bring issues to school leaders’ attention. Issues like a 56-degree classroom and a student who wanted more food.

"It's so upsetting,” Myers said. "I tell people that and they don't even believe it.”

Meghan Myers Warren County
Meghan Myers looks through emails and other documents she collected during her time at the Warren County Educational Service Center.

Educational Service Center Superintendent Tom Isaacs called Myers a disgruntled employee who he says was forced out.

Myers filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, saying ESC officials retaliated against her for raising concerns about what she described as a culture of valuing profit over kids.

Officials did not find enough evidence to substantiate her retaliation claim. But as part of the Disability Rights Ohio investigation, three other ESC employees filed sworn declarations describing similar concerns.

And as a result, a state investigation found the ESC fails many of its students with the most needs. State investigators ordered the school system to rework student learning plans and increase training for its staff.

Now, the ESC is suing the state to stop this.

And in February, a Warren County magistrate approved a temporary restraining order against the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce. That means state officials can't force the ESC do anything until the lawsuit is concluded.

The Education Department declined an interview request for this story, saying it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. ESC Superintendent Tom Isaacs called their investigation bogus.

“I find it to be malpractice from the state ... to not to support children with mental health,” Isaacs said. "There is no typical curriculum here, because this is not a school. And children who come here are not able to sit in a classroom and behave like a typical child in a typical school."

Tom Isaacs Superintendent
Warren County Educational Service Center Superintendent Tom Isaacs

Isaacs is sitting in a classroom at the ESC’s Wellness Center. He looks around at the other employees in the room.

“Have any of you three been hit?”

They all raise their hands. Jared Kaiser, director of the school, takes out his phone and scrolls through pictures until he finds one where his eye is severely bruised. It happened in January, and the superintendent drove him to the emergency room.

Isaacs says staff at ESC buildings specialize in teaching students who struggle in other environments. That's why he says he stands by the work they're doing.

“Any parent who has a child in this building could keep their kid home tomorrow and take them back to their home school,” he said. “It’s completely parent choice.”

Students from all over Warren County go to Educational Service Center programs. Local school officials send students there who need specialized services they cannot get in the school district where they live.

But not everyone agrees with Isaac’s assessment of those services. And families like the Hughes are stuck in the middle.

“I feel like parents like us have so few options,” Kellie Hughes said.

When her son was younger, Daniel went to the Cincinnati Center for Autism. Hughes liked it. She thought Daniel liked it, too. But with three other kids, it soon became too expensive.

On the back patio of their home, Daniel’s dad shakes his head.

“I understand the challenge," said Brian Hughes. “But are they meeting that challenge for Daniel? No.”

State investigators say students like Daniel are entitled to additional educational hours because of what they deem a lack of access to appropriate academics at the Warren County Educational Service Center. But the lawsuit means it will be months until Daniel gets those hours – if he does at all.

"They told me recently he gets 10 minutes of physical therapy a week,” Kellie Hughes said. “How could that be enough?”

Unaware of the situation, Daniel smiles and claps in his backyard. It’s where his family spends most of their time. His mom sings the Barney song. And when she’s done, she kisses him on head.

Kellie Hughes says she is unsure if she will send him to school tomorrow.