A short-lived escape this week from the Boys State Training School in Eldora left an employee badly beaten and again exposed sharp disagreement over the fate of the facility’s program.
On Monday night, four youths attacked and seriously wounded a staff member — and injured another who came to his aid — before breaking out a window and escaping for an hour or longer.
The school, which is run by the Iowa Department of Human Services, is a structured setting for 95 seriously delinquent youths ages 12 to 18 who have been sent there by the courts.
Last fall, the facility came under scrutiny when Disability Rights Iowa filed a federal lawsuit asserting that instead of providing proper mental health treatment to the boys, the school too often was placing them in “foul-smelling seclusion cells” for days and strapping them down with restraints for lengthy periods.
Disability Rights Iowa, a private nonprofit that receives federal funding, asked a judge to prevent practices and policies at the school that violate the youths’ rights.
But it is just the kind of permissiveness encouraged by the lawsuit that led to Monday’s attack and escape, asserted Danny Homan, who is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, the largest of the state’s public employee unions.
“We have been warning that the culture created by Disability Rights Iowa at the State Training School at Eldora has become dangerous for staff. … This is caused by emboldened residents being told by DRI that they don’t have to follow staff directives and that staff are not allowed to touch them,” Homan said in a statement. “The witch hunts and constant lawsuits from the attorneys that make up DRI are making the State Training School at Eldora less safe for both residents and staff. When boys can escape after beating up employees, something is seriously wrong.”
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Homan said the situation is worsened by changes made by lawmakers last year to sharply limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions like his — changes he said have made staff at the facility fearful of retaliation for speaking out about unsafe conditions.
A staff attorney for Disability Rights Iowa, Nathan Kirstein, said his organization wasn’t aware of Monday’s incident, and said his organization has never advocated the use of violence against the staff.
“The extent to which physical altercations occur at the school underscores that it is the culture of the school itself that breeds violence. Repeatedly, boys with serious mental health needs are not getting the treatment that they need and are legally entitled to,” Kirstein said.
The nonprofit’s suit alleges no full-time licensed mental health professionals were on staff and said employees relied on “potentially harmful” psychotropic medications, solitary confinement and full-body restraints to control the boys.
The suit remains pending in U.S. District Court in Des Moines.
Kirstein said the suit’s goal is to ensure that the residents at the school are receiving the appropriate treatment.
“The relief that is sought through this lawsuit will ensure that violent incidents are reduced through following national standards for the delivery of treatment services to the youth at the school and national accepted standards of ensuring safety at the facility,” he said.
A measure making its way through the Iowa Legislature earlier this year raised Democratic concerns that it would transform the school into more of a correctional facility — like a prison — and less of a treatment center to help get youths on the right path.
The legislation did not advance beyond a legislative deadline.
Human Services said in its description of Monday’s incident that students planned the attack and escape, which they launched about 9 p.m.
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The boys beat up one staffer and injured another. Other employees prevented the boys from taking keys to the facility and alerted security.
But the youths broke out a window in a cottage and four escaped, with staff in pursuit. Law enforcement was notified and two of the boys were captured about 10 p.m. The other two were caught an hour later.
None of the students were injured, according to Human Services. No names were released.