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08 May 2024, 9:30 am

This School for Autistic Youth Can Cost $573,200 a Year. It Operates With Little Oversight, and Students Have Suffered.

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From the first months that Brett Ashinoff was at Shrub Oak International School in New York, his parents felt uneasy about the residential school for students with autism.

They worried that Brett, who already was thin, was losing weight. They said his nails weren’t getting cut. He would refuse to get into the car to return to Shrub Oak after visits home, sitting for hours on the porch until his father coaxed him into the vehicle.

His parents’ concerns, documented in email exchanges with school administrators, began soon after he started in April 2022 and grew over time. Brett’s speech therapy was reduced because of limited staff. He wasn’t given his medication for at least five days in a row. “Kindly accept our sincerest apologies,” Lauren Koffler, a member of the family that operates the school, wrote in an email to Brett’s mother about the medication. She said an error with the pharmacy was responsible for the lapse.

Then came a series of confrontations with overnight staff in February 2023. Brett, his parents said, had never been physically restrained at a school before going to Shrub Oak. But employees restrained the 18-year-old, who weighed 95 pounds, at least three times one week after he became aggressive with them. One of those nights, several employees took him to a padded room and held him down on the floor. He sustained injuries, including a cut on his leg, according to emails between the school and his parents.

When Brett called his mother crying and begging to leave, Russ Ashinoff, his father, got in his car and drove two hours from his home in New Jersey to Shrub Oak, located in Westchester County.

He said he arrived to find Brett shaking, his foot purple and swollen. His nose was bruised and cut. “He was inconsolable, not himself,” Ashinoff said. He took Brett to an emergency room, where he was sedated, records show. Brett had never before needed to be sedated, his father said.

Ashinoff said he tried to report suspected abuse to several agencies in New York. The attorney general’s office took his complaint but told him it didn’t have jurisdiction and referred him to the New York State Education Department, according to the attorney general’s office. The Education Department told Ashinoff that it, too, couldn’t do anything, he said.

Ashinoff scribbled notes on the back of an envelope as he was repeatedly turned away.

“I never imagined you could have a school with a bunch of kids who are vulnerable that would be a free-for-all,” said Ashinoff, a physician. “The health department comes in and looks at every McDonald’s, but nobody is going to check out a school?”

He’s right. No state agency oversees Shrub Oak, which enrolls a range of students with autism including those whom other schools declined to serve and who have severe behavioral challenges and complex medical needs. The private, for-profit school chose not to seek approval from New York’s Education Department.

That means it has gotten no meaningful oversight and state officials have had no authority over the school — over who works there, whether money is spent properly and if the curriculum and services are appropriate for students with disabilities.

Even without New York’s approval, Shrub Oak receives public money from school districts across the country that pay tuition for the students they send there.

Shrub Oak opened in 2018 with grand promises: beautiful dorms, an indoor therapy pool, an equestrian stable, a restaurant-quality kitchen, sophisticated security, round-the-clock care and cutting-edge education for students with autism from around the world.

Some of those promises never materialized. A ProPublica investigation — based on records from school districts, court documents and interviews with nearly 30 families and just as many workers — also found accusations of possible abuse and neglect: unexplained black eyes and bruises on students’ bodies, medication mix-ups, urine-soaked mattresses and deficient staffing. Many parents and workers, armed with confidential documents and photos of student injuries, described their futile efforts to get authorities to intervene.

Shrub Oak’s leaders declined to be interviewed. In written responses to questions from ProPublica, the school said it “handles some of the most complex cases” of students who have autism and who struggle with “significant self-injurious behaviors,” aggression and property destruction.

Though the school touts its expertise with students who need constant care, police records detail young people swallowing aluminum foil, plexiglass, diapers and their own feces; putting their heads or fists through windows; and running away as recently as late March.

Last year, two Shrub Oak workers were criminally charged for abusing students, though one case has been dropped. The other worker is due in court on Thursday.

Shrub Oak struggles to maintain enough workers, particularly during evenings and weekends. It doesn’t always provide the dedicated aides it guarantees, records and interviews show. And the school’s leaders also have hired employees with criminal convictions for offenses including robbery and burglary — something that would be prohibited in many students’ home districts.

The New York Education Department said it does not track how many unapproved schools operate in the state. It oversees hundreds of approved private schools, which gives them the ability to issue diplomas and take tuition money directly from New York school districts.

New York’s position is that the states sending students to Shrub Oak are responsible for them. But some states and districts have struggled to monitor students’ progress or well-being or didn’t check on them in person, the ProPublica investigation found. The failures of oversight come at a time when more young people are being diagnosed with autism and school districts and families are desperate for help educating them.

As Michael Koffler and his family were creating Shrub Oak in 2016, they were still dealing with the fallout from a state investigation into their alleged misuse of taxpayer money for personal gain.

That October, New York authorities publicly accused Koffler and his two sons, Brian and Daniel, of using state money intended for students with disabilities at Sunshine Developmental School, a special-education preschool in New York City, to pay family members’ inflated salaries, credit card bills and boat expenses. Some state money also paid Brian Koffler’s law school tuition, and Michael Koffler claimed maintenance on his Westhampton beach home and purchases in St. Barts as business expenses, according to the investigation by the New York state comptroller, attorney general and tax commissioner.

“We won’t allow special education programs to be exploited for personal financial gain,” then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a press release.

The family and its business, K3 Learning Inc., “launched a scheme” to avoid paying millions of dollars in personal and corporate income tax and had also created a real estate company that it used to mark up rent to Sunshine, the tax commissioner said at the time.

The family did not admit any wrongdoing but agreed to pay New York $4.3 million to settle the case. Michael Koffler’s sons have paid what they owed, records show. But Koffler and his wife are delinquent. The state issued a tax warrant, and with penalties and interest the couple now owe $2.9 million. Michael, Brian and Daniel Koffler did not respond to a request for comment. The school’s spokesperson said “the tax warrant case is unrelated to Shrub Oak.”

Six weeks after the settlement was announced, Brian Koffler applied to establish Shrub Oak International School, the family’s first boarding school, as a business in New York. Michael Koffler used K3’s business address and his company email address in financing documents to open Shrub Oak, records show.

Shrub Oak said in its responses to ProPublica that “K3 is unrelated to Shrub Oak.” But some leaders are the same; Michael Koffler is the CEO, Brian Koffler is the general counsel and a consultant. Brian Koffler’s wife, Lauren, is head of admissions, communications and client relations. In his LinkedIn profile, Michael Koffler lists himself as K3’s CEO and under his experience there mentions Shrub Oak, calling it “a crowning achievement to date.”

Shrub Oak took over the property, a former seminary on 127 acres of rolling hills in Mohegan Lake about an hour outside of New York City, in late 2017. The goal was to enroll about 400 students, and Shrub Oak’s leaders worked to create buzz about their new project. Email blasts to school district officials touted the “extraordinary personal attention” that students would get. Advertisements promoted a luxe facility with impressive amenities. A piece in Architectural Digest extolled its renovation.

“There were no other schools for Teddy,” said Buck, whose family lives in the suburbs of Chicago. “Everybody turned their back on us. What instance can you think of where the police can’t help you, hospitals can’t help you, schools can’t help you?”

A few other parents, including those not provided by the school’s spokesperson, said they are aware of troubles at the school but believe their children have done well.

As ProPublica was reporting on Shrub Oak, some state education officials and advocates for people with disabilities were looking more closely at the school.

Massachusetts acknowledged to ProPublica that it approved Shrub Oak two years ago in violation of its own requirements. The state allowed public money to pay students’ tuition there after it failed to realize that New York had an approval process — and that Shrub Oak had not sought that approval. The Massachusetts education department discovered the error after receiving complaints about the school from at least two districts and parents. It gave the seven districts with publicly funded students at Shrub Oak until July to find other placements for them.

And last year, Disability Rights New York, the federally appointed watchdog for people with disabilities in the state, launched an investigation and visited the school. DRNY said in recent court filings that it has received more than 40 complaints about the school, including students being denied medical attention and staff being discouraged from calling 911 — allegations the school said are false. The organization can release its findings publicly and sue to seek changes, but it does not have enforcement authority.

The group filed a lawsuit last month against the state Education Department after the agency denied responsibility for Shrub Oak and argued it didn’t have to provide records of any complaints. The department has cited the school’s nonapproved status as a reason for denying the records, saying it does not have responsibility for “investigating incidents of abuse or neglect, injury or death” or “any other oversight responsibility” at Shrub Oak.

Shrub Oak criticized the fairness of the investigation, saying DRNY and a similar agency in Connecticut have visited the school multiple times and requested documents and other information but have not shared their concerns, leaving the school unable to respond.

Last October, soon after the school day ended, a Shrub Oak employee began menacing a student who was yelling, court records show. The man raised a desk over his head and threatened to throw it at the 22-year-old student from Chicago.

He also knocked on the student’s forehead with his knuckles four or five times “similar to a way a person would knock very hard on a door,” according to the sworn statement of an employee who said she witnessed the incident.

The student said, “Ouch, you are hurting me,” according to that statement, and the student at one point grabbed the right side of her stomach and cried out that she’d been hit.

The employee was fired then charged with three misdemeanors — menacing, harassment and endangering the welfare of a disabled person. He has pleaded not guilty.

When the Chicago student’s mother picked up her daughter for a visit in December, she decided she wasn’t comfortable leaving her at Shrub Oak any longer. She called Chicago Public Schools and learned that Shrub Oak had not told the district that its student was the victim of the alleged abuse even though it should have, according to its contract with Shrub Oak. Chicago Public Schools confirmed the district learned of the alleged abuse of the student from her mother.

That same day, the student’s mother also called ProPublica. She and other parents spoke to reporters on the condition that their names not be used because they were afraid of retaliation by the school’s operators or feared being in the desperate position of needing to find another school and being penalized for speaking out.

The October incident was one of the more than 150 times that the local police responded to calls about the school since 2019 — from employees reporting student injuries to parents asking for well-being checks on their children.

at least four other incidents involving suspected abuse, Shrub Oak told police that it had fired employees, records show. The school fired an employee in 2022 who was seen shoving a student “to the floor multiple times.” It fired another employee in November 2023 after a co-worker saw him hit a student in the head and chest and slam him to the floor.

In February of last year, Shrub Oak also fired a worker who reportedly punched two students in the stomach at night in their bedrooms. The school told police about the incident three days later. An employee who witnessed the incident told police he saw the worker punch both students and then justify it, saying, “Sometimes you have to (motioned punching) to get them to do what they have to do,” according to court records.

The employee in the February incident was arrested, but the Westchester County district attorney’s office said it dismissed the case because of issues with gathering sufficient evidence within the required time frame for criminal cases.

The school told ProPublica that it calls the police to be transparent and impartial, and that some students make false allegations or call 911 as “negative attention-seeking behavior.”

Underlying many of the problems at Shrub Oak are staffing shortages, according to records and interviews. An internal email shows that one night, a “skeleton staff” was stretched too thin to attend to students’ hygiene. Employees provided ProPublica schedules that showed multiple students assigned to one worker even though the students required individual aides and the districts were paying for them.

Shrub Oak acknowledged the challenge of operating round-the-clock, but its spokesperson said that its staff of 400 is adequate and that the school “determines staffing levels based on student needs and contract parameters.” The school said that some students have advanced to where they can work without individual aides and that it passes any savings onto the districts.

James Roddy, a former Shrub Oak student, said the school sometimes was so short on staff “they’d literally ask other kids to watch over them.” He and another student ran away from the school one evening in January 2022 and spent the night hiding inside a Home Depot, police records show.

Despite being a school that pledges to help students with intense behavioral challenges, Shrub Oak has only one certified behavioral therapist, employees and parents told ProPublica. Shrub Oak would not confirm the number.

A current employee described his concern over a student who was isolated in his bedroom as punishment. Like the Ashinoffs, he found he had nowhere to turn. He tried the state Education Department and the Justice Center, which investigates allegations that students with disabilities have been abused or neglected. He said both agencies told him they had no authority over unapproved schools.

“It broke my heart,” the employee said. “Who is watching out for these students?”

“I had a student almost die because he had a seizure and almost stopped breathing. They had stopped giving him medicine,” said a former behavior specialist at the school. Police records and emails describe students taking the wrong medication or none at all. Shrub Oak told ProPublica that it has changed its medication practices.

Several parents also said their children uncharacteristically began urinating and defecating in their rooms because they were locked out of bathrooms overnight. Shrub Oak said some students have conditions that lead them to soil themselves — sometimes intentionally — and that staff are always available to let students in the locked bathrooms.

And for years, Shrub Oak leaders have been telling parents that a “restaurant-quality kitchen” would be finished “by year end” or in a few months, records show.

Instead, the food mostly comes from a nearby deli, though the school says Shrub Oak’s chef and nutritionist “are beyond compare.” (The therapy pool and equestrian stable also have not been built.) Shrub Oak told ProPublica on April 12 that the kitchen is slated to open “within days,” pending completion of electrical work. As of Tuesday, the kitchen still was not open.

“The promise of this place was magic,” one mother from California said. She pulled her son from Shrub Oak last year and sent him to an approved residential school for autistic students.

“Why they’re even allowed to have a school, I have no idea,” she said.


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Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman