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Hargis: The Civil Right Violations of Spectrum Academy

The Utah school was recently put under investigation for the restraint of their students and inaccurate recordkeeping.
Sarah Karr
Spectrum Academy STARS Campus for students who require additional needs in North Salt Lake City on Monday Sept. 18, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Karr | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


Last week, a federal investigation found that Spectrum Academy, a K-12 school for neurodiverse children such as kids with autism, violated the civil rights of students to free and public education. The school was seemingly doing its job well — it had a reputation among parents as being reliable and resulting in great improvements in their children’s behavior. This made the federal investigation a complete shock.

In the federal report, the school struggled to accommodate kids by failing to meet their needs as students. Kids were often restrained and secluded during expressive outbursts, often for multiple hours that cut into class time. There was also evidence of lulls in recordkeeping, meaning the amount of time students were held out of class could be much higher than what was actually recorded.

Spectrum Academy students, who were held for class without alternative learning opportunities, deserve better than the neglect they received from their school. While the school has pledged to do better, that doesn’t erase their infringements on the rights of these students.

What Happened?

Records showed that over 100 students were taken to timeout or completely immobilized more than 1,000 times over a span of two school years. The investigation itself focused on the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, looking at records kept by the school during those times.

Two students in particular were restrained and secluded a great number of times. One student was subject to restraint and seclusion at least 40 times over the two-year period, and another was restrained and secluded over 99 times. This resulted in over 13 hours of school time missed.

The state of Utah allows a school employee to use “reasonable and necessary physical restraint” if it’s in self-defense, or to prevent injury to the restrained individual or anyone around them. So, while the restraint seems excessive, it’s technically lawful. What alarmed investigators was the lack of options for students who had missed so much class time. The number of hours missed vastly infringed on the student’s civil right to education.

The report also mentions that there was no consideration for “the need for compensatory services for these students.” This is a huge injustice. Students were physically restrained, secluded or left during the day and were given no other opportunity to make up for the school they missed — this is nowhere near acceptable. Spectrum Academy must do better.

Spectrum Academy Soda Shack on the high school campus in North Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Karr | The Daily Utah Chronicle) (Sarah Karr)

Spectrum’s Defense

Last week, the school’s head of academics, Jaime Christensen, signed an agreement to comply with the Office of Civil Rights to proceed with better conduct going forward. The agreement requires a change to policies and record-keeping habits, as well as training. Christensen, however, quickly jumped online and defended the school immediately following the agreement.

“The report of high numbers of restraints or seclusions is misleading at best,” she wrote in a Facebook post, “For example, if we are trying to keep a student who has self-injurious behavior from hurting themselves or others, we will hold their arm or whichever part of their body they are trying to harm, to avoid them getting seriously injured.” While, again, this is all lawful, their outbursts were not handled properly.

There should be procedures in place that would allow students to make up class time in case of an outburst, or access proper tutoring in place of class. In this post, Christensen tries to negate the severity of this case — however, nothing changes the fact that these students and their academics were still neglected, and their right to education was mishandled.

The Plan Moving Forward

Christensen went on to write in the same post, “The main concern was that we ensure that if a student has missed instruction due to a behavior incident, that we ensure the specially designed instruction minutes are made up. We are working to do that now.”

The bottom line is that students, neurodiverse or not, have a right to a free education. This means that schools must make academics accessible to all. Yet, these particular students’ rights were overlooked in these instances of restraint and missed class time. The school did not act accordingly to give the students the education they deserved, and for that, they must change.

While Christensen admitted to ignoring missed class time in the past, she claimed that no hours of class had been missed after 2019. The school is also working with the students from the previous school years to make up for what they missed. There’s hope for change at the school. Even though these students were snubbed, we can only hope for the best moving forward.


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About the Contributors
Harper Hargis, Opinion Writer
Harper Hargis is currently studying writing & rhetoric. She grew up in Washington and spends most of her time daydreaming about the Pacific Northwest.
Sarah Karr, Photographer
Sarah Karr was born and raised in Springfield, Oregon, and is attending the University of Utah with a major is communication and a minor in digital photography. Sarah is working with the Chronicle to improve her photojournalism skills and gain some experience in the newsroom. In her free time, Sarah likes to play online games, read and tend to her plants.

Comments (4)

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  • J

    Jorah MorrisSep 21, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Hey! They’re talking’ about me! Thank you Spectrum for the memories!

  • K

    KellySep 20, 2023 at 10:42 am

    As the mother of a student who can be aggressive towards others (myself included), I love, love, love Spectrum Academy and its employees. My son has been isolated and restrained to prevent injury to others. Each time it has happened I have been notified. Despite staff being kicked, bit, and scratched by my son, they still greet him with a loving smile and enthusiasm EVERY time they see him. The author of this article really needs to spend a day with a family with an autistic child and maybe they will understand why places like Spectrum Academy are godsends to families like us.

  • B

    Briauna sanchezSep 19, 2023 at 6:05 pm

    My daughter NEEDS to have “time outs”. She get overwhelmed and can become agressive during that time. That is totally an appropriate thing to take her out of class untill she is calm and able to return to class. How can she participate in learning when she is in the middle of a melt down. I love love love this school and appericate all they do to help with my daughters education.

  • B

    Becky KimballSep 19, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    Wow, you don’t understand the severity of an autism aggression situation. And getting an autistic child to makeup school hours, outside their routine, is nigh impossible. Spectrum is doing their very best and the teachers and staff are under paid, over worked, and abused by students.