Private special education school without restraint

This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Twenty years ago, a visitor to Centennial School would have heard a cacophony.

“Banging on doors, yelling, wailing,” said Julie Fogt, the current director of the school. “Adults were loud: ‘Stop that, stop that! Crisis! I need help!’”

It was a private school, but public schools paid to send their most troubled kids there. The school took only children who had both a diagnosis of autism or emotional disturbance and a history of severe behavior issues.

“It was the most violent school I’d ever been in,” said Michael George, the former director.

A man with blue eyes and a bushy white mustache, George stepped into the role of director in 1999. The year before, a population of only around 80 kids were physically restrained over 1,000 times. Students were dragged, kicking and screaming, to locked seclusion rooms. Most of the school’s furniture was old and dilapidated. As one administrator told George, why bother purchasing something new when an angry kid would probably break it the next day?

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