WORLAND—Afternoon, Dec. 10, 2021: A 16-year-old boy flips a desk at a Wyoming Boys’ School staff member.
The staffer, Aaron Tadlock, catches the desk, and an earful of yelling. He attempts “to tackle” the student, sending the boy into the wall, according to a law enforcement affidavit describing video of the incident.
More staff members rush in “trying to gain control” of the student, whose name we’ve withheld because he was a minor. Then more staffers join the fray, bringing the tally to eight adults and one teenage student.
The staffers get the student to his feet, restrain his hands and lock him in a secure room. But the video shows the soft cuffs were misapplied, and soon the student, one hand free, is striking the restraint against a security camera.
Washakie County Sheriff’s deputies arrive within minutes and handcuff the student “without issue.” The deputies remove the boy from the cell, sit him in a chair and talk to him about what’s going on.
A month earlier, according to a police report, the school’s staff “advised the Sheriff’s Office they could no longer handle [redacted] because of his disruptive behavior.” The student had repeatedly told authorities that “he did not want to be there anymore and wanted to die.”
His was not an isolated case.
An investigation by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune reveals that violence, reliance on physical restraints and the use of solitary confinement have all become increasingly common in recent years at the Wyoming Boys’ School — the state-run facility that houses delinquent 12- to 21-year-old boys.
Furthermore, the rapid rise of such troubling conditions has been largely invisible to the public. Citing juvenile privacy laws, the Wyoming Department of Family Services, which oversees the facility, refuses to provide records or other information about the number, nature or resolution of incidents. Likewise, near- and long-term outcomes for kids in the system are not available. WyoFile and the Star-Tribune relied, instead, on external police reports, affidavits and first-person accounts to document the deteriorating conditions.
When asked by Joint Judiciary Committee member Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) at a legislative meeting, DFS Director Korin Schmidt said allegations of abuse or mistreatment at the Boys’ School are handled as Child Protective Services cases, “and then we don’t talk about that. That’s confidential under the statute.” CPS is a component of DFS, meaning the agency investigates the allegations itself, without any external oversight or transparency.
Not even the lawmakers tasked with writing Wyoming’s youth justice laws and funding the Boys’ School have full access to information about the facility’s state of affairs.
During the 2021 interim session, the judiciary committee made juvenile justice its No. 1 priority, but the members did not learn about the uptick in incidents at the Boys’ School. All the committee got was a 10-minute overview of the facility.
“Maybe four years ago, I visited the Boys’ School and I had lunch there. And I recall having chicken fingers. And I just have to say, it was actually really really good,” Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), the committee’s co-chair, said following the presentation. The committee had the sense that things were running smoothly, Provenza said.
Reporters found a different reality when they spoke with boys and their parents, law enforcement, legislators, administrators, experts and current and former staff members for this two-part investigation. The first installment documents the conditions at the Boys’ School and the factors degrading student safety. The second part, available Nov. 18, explores the systemic causes of the status quo and potential solutions.
Juvenile justice advocates agree that the violence at the Boys’ School could have been prevented with more resources, transparency and oversight.
To Steena, a parent of a child who’s been in the school for nearly a year, there’s a glaring irony in the Boys’ School operating without public scrutiny.
“My son is held accountable for everything he does, but the Boys’ School, DFS, they’re not held accountable for anything they do,” said Steena, who’s going by her first name to protect her son’s identity.
DFS denied WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune’s request for incident reports and investigations, citing an obligation to protect the privacy of juveniles in state care. A follow-up request for redacted records — documents with all identifying information removed — was also denied.
“For Wyoming, statutes in the Child Protective Services Act, Juvenile Justice Act, and Public Records Act prevent disclosure of even redacted incident reports from the WBS,” Clint Hanes, public information officer for the Department of Family Services, wrote in an email.
Though Gary Gilmore, former superintendent of the Boys’ School, said 1988 was the last time he could recall a substantiated abuse determination, DFS also denied a request for a tally of allegations and whether they were investigated.
However, police reports associated with the Boys’ School, as well as data on the use of restraints — such as handcuffs and shackles — and seclusions — where a child is held alone in a room with just a mattress and a toilet — helped illustrate a troubling picture.
The police reports revealed that between June 2021 and January 2022, the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office received an unprecedented number of calls to the Boys’ School. Incidents ranged from students breaking windows and damaging property to physical altercations. When police arrived, staff told them they were seeing more teens with a level of mental illness that they felt ill-equipped to care for.
The cops saw it too. One police report questioned whether staff were properly trained to use restraints, the use of which started to rapidly increase in 2018, according to reporters’ records requests. The police reports also mention the use of a secure isolation room for students, a practice that had also been on the rise.
Those trends might have shaped the discussion of lawmakers studying juvenile justice, but that information is not readily available to the public or the Legislature.
“That data is collected. What we haven’t been very good about, though, is really pulling it all together and analyzing it,” Schmidt said.
Now, the Boys’ School is coming off a violent period, a trend that leaders like Schmidt blame on unforeseeable circumstances such as COVID-19. But longtime staff members say increases in restraints and seclusions, which they saw years before the pandemic, were harbingers of increasingly volatile conditions.
Calls for backup
A water tower adorned with “Wyoming Boys’ School” emerges from Washakie County’s expanse of farm fields six miles south of Worland, marking the 40-acre campus. It’s a juvenile detention facility; boys are court-ordered to be there for offenses ranging from violating probation to drug use to sexual abuse — but there are no fences or razor wire to be seen from U.S. Highway 20. The driveway to the sprawling administration building is lined with cottonwoods and aspens. A school built in 2015 and several dorms encircle a well-manicured quad. The facility is staffed to house 60 boys, who are an average age of 16 and who stay an average of eight months, according to Dale Weber, the Boys’ School superintendent.
Captain Richard Fernandez has been with the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office since 2002, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years into his career that he remembers getting called to respond to violence at the Boys’ School.
“In 2021, we saw more calls for service out there,” Fernandez said. “What we started seeing was the Boys’ School was actually having problems with juveniles out there being violent … getting to the point where they were asking for our assistance.”
The sheriff’s office had long served warrants to boys, helped with transports and issued burn permits for the school’s ground maintenance, but calls for assistance when things got out of hand were extremely rare, according to Fernandez and reporters’ analysis of Washakie County Sheriff’s Office records.
Last year was also the first time Fernandez could remember housing students from the Boys’ School in the Washakie County jail. That put an additional burden on staff, Fernandez said, because by law juveniles must be housed separately from adults to ensure their safety.
The boys’ mental and emotional needs placed even more strain on staff.
“I gotta commend my jail staff. They actually worked very hard to work with some of his needs,” said Fernandez of one boy in particular. “If he was feeling anxious, he would be able to let them know and they’d be able to let him have some time by himself to be able to calm down.”
Despite those efforts, Fernandez said, “adult jails are not designed for juveniles. That’s why the Boys’ School exists.”
As to why the Boys’ School was struggling to fulfill its duty to safely house juveniles, Fernandez wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know if it’s the lack of [staff] training or if it’s the kids. I think it’s a mixture of things,” he said.
“You’re seeing kids that can be more violent,” which Fernandez attributes to a statewide mental health crisis. “In Wyoming, there’s that lack of resources. I think that combines into a perfect storm for this kind of stuff to happen.”
In early December, Washakie County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Oberth responded to an incident in which a 16-year-old boy bit a staff member who was attempting to restrain him before the staffer punched the boy twice with a fist, according to an incident report.
Oberth wrote in the report that when he went to interview the boy, “was removed from a secure isolation room and brought into a conference area.” Oberth noted the boy’s “head showed signs of bruising to both sides of his face.” As a part of his investigation Oberth reviewed internal documents and found the boy had “a history of self-harm and abuse towards animals, along with a history of physical harm towards others.” The records also revealed to Oberth that the boy had been orphaned at age 4 and had a history of severe psychological trauma including years of sexual abuse.
The boy, whose name is redacted from the deputy’s report, told Oberth there were five students who would call him names, but when he brought the bullying to a staff members’ attention he was told “to focus on himself, that there was nothing that could be done about it.” The boy told Oberth the staff’s reaction upset him and that he was sent to his room to cool off, where he tore apart his bedsheet and draped it around his neck. He told Oberth he had no intention of harming himself.
The boy told Oberth he heard staff call for security, that the guard punched him twice in the face upon arrival and that the boy bit him in retaliation. Once staff gained control of him physically, they put his hands in restraints and placed him in a holding cell for four hours, according to what he told Oberth.
Mark Nelson, the security guard who punched the boy, remembers the events differently. He told Oberth that when he responded to the call there were already several staff members trying to remove the torn sheet from the boy and restrain him, according to a copy of the deputy’s report. Nelson told Oberth that when the boy lashed out physically, he tried to help restrain him and that’s when the boy bit his finger. Nelson admitted to Oberth that he used a closed fist to hit the boy twice in the face. Then staff restrained the student and moved him to a detention cell.
Terry Quail, another staff member present, told Oberth that in the three-plus years he’d worked there, he’d been involved in a dozen encounters with students involving restraint tactics.
“WBS had been getting a higher number of students who are in need of mental health and they are ill-equipped to handle them,” Quail told Oberth according to his report.
Oberth concluded that “Mark Nelson’s reaction to being severely bitten would be justified and [therefore], no charges are being recommended in this incident.”
That said, Oberth also wrote that the bruising to both sides of the boy’s face “can be explained by the forceful restraint process used by staff. The method of restraint is not a part of this investigation, however, there does appear to be a lack of training and or policy restrictions that may have contributed to the injuries.”
Inadequate training isn’t the purview of local law enforcement, Fernandez said, but Oberth documented the forceful restraint process because “he was trying to get a full account of what was going on.”
“That’s a state-run facility, so we wouldn’t have much say as far as how they do things,” Fernandez said. “I’m not trying to pass the buck, I’m just letting you know where our jurisdiction ends.
“I think that in order for there to be changes, the state has to do a real review of what they want, and what they expect of the Boys’ School and [its] ability to handle juveniles with mental health issues,” he concluded.
There is, however, another, higher recourse — the U.S. Department of Justice can investigate and litigate states that fail to protect the civil rights of juvenile offenders because facilities’ policies are insufficient or unenforced, as authorized by the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1997.
Mountain or molehill?
As to why there was a spike in incidents requiring support from law enforcement, Schmidt, the DFS director, points to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath.
According to 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control, “more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.”
On top of that, the students at the Boys’ School were on lockdown to limit the spread of COVID.
“So you have limited movement with adolescent males, who need a lot of opportunity to move around, who do not always respond well to having constriction in space,” Schmidt said.
“We went through a significant budget reduction, which required us to reduce positions at the Boys’ School,” Schmidt said in an interview.
As a part of those cuts, the facility downsized from four dorms down to three, and “what you had was a significant change in programming.”
At the same time, there was a change in leadership: Gilmore, who had been the Boys’ School superintendent since 2004, resigned in January, and Dale Weber, who’d been clinical director for several years, took the helm.
Schmidt doesn’t deny there’s room for improvement. But she cautions against indicting the Boys’ School based on police reports.
“I’m not sure that you can make an assessment of all staff and all policies based on one incident in any given situation,” she said. “Looking at an isolated incident doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the whole.”
Yet it wasn’t just one incident. There were reports of a student assaulting staff, a student pulling down the sprinkler system and, days before a press tour, a student breaking windows and using the glass to cut himself.
On Dec. 10, WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune toured the Boys’ School and saw staff carrying a riot shield into a dorm. Weber explained the shield was necessary because glass from the broken window could be used as a weapon.
That afternoon, after reporters completed their tour, police responded to the desk flipping incident.
The pandemic-related restrictions likely made things worse, but public records also show an increase in restraints and seclusion starting long before COVID-19.
From 2018 to 2019, the number of mechanical restraint uses — like “handcuffs, leg restraints and/or belly chain” — more than doubled. From there, instances climbed to 58 in 2021, up from a six-year low of 13 in 2017.
Physical restraints — when staff members put their hands on students to subdue them — were used far less often, but saw a similar trajectory: they were not used at all in the 2018 fiscal year and steadily climbed to a high of 10 in 2021.
A restraint chair also saw an increase in use after it was purchased in April 2016. The chair was not used in 2016 or 2017, but that changed in 2018 when it was used once. After that, the use jumped to five times in 2019, eight times in 2020 and 13 in the 2021 fiscal year.
Chemical restraints — injectable medications such as Haldol — are also a part of the school’s toolbox, but they’re used far less often with only one instance in 2018 and one in 2019.
In addition to restraints, the school also employs seclusionary holds, isolating students in a small cinder-block room with only a mattress on the floor and a toilet in the corner.
From 2016 — the farthest date the department said it was able to provide data for — to 2021, seclusionary holds increased nearly 75%, from 27 holds in 2016 to 46 during the 2021 fiscal year.
When a student is put into a seclusionary hold, it is almost always for a minimum of 24 hours. The large majority of holds are between 24 and 72 hours, but in 2020, the number of holds over 72 hours grew.
Fiscal years 2020 and 2021 saw 11 and 15 holds respectively that lasted more than 72 hours.
The department did not provide data on the actual length of holds that exceeded 72 hours, arguing that Wyoming statute precludes it from having to provide data on how long each student was held when it was over 72 hours as well as any data whatsoever prior to 2016.
Because data prior to 2016 has been archived, the department said that retrieving it would create an “unnecessary interference with the regular discharge of the [Agency’s] duties due to the significant amount of time it would take to retrieve and disaggregate the requested data.”
That “unnecessary interference,” the department argues, is protected by Wyoming statute.
There is, however, some indication that conditions are improving at the facility: Both seclusionary holds and restraint instances of all types decreased during the 2022 fiscal year for the first time since 2018.
Discipline or damage?
While the department would not provide data prior to 2016, there’s testimony that restraints were less common.
“I had staff members that had worked there for years and had never ever been in a physical restraint,” Michelle McCawley said. She worked at the Boys’ School for 24 years before leaving in 2020 because she didn’t like the direction the facility was headed.
“That breaks my heart finding that out,” McCawley said when she was told that the restraint and seclusion incidents continued to increase after she left. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
Restraints inflict long-term harm by triggering a trauma response, said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. Rather than helping youth change their behavior, restraints get in the way of healing and rehabilitation, he said. “The only change is more resistance, and more isolation, and more trauma.”
By focusing on strategies to reduce the use of restraints, “facilities may be able to reduce the frequency of injuries to youth and staff, reduce fear among youth and staff, and then subsequently create the treatment environment that would reduce the behaviors that are alleged to call for that kind of response.”
What Wyoming really needs, Tuell said, “is a transparent review that would provide some recommendations for enhancements of the current practice.”
Still, Schmidt stands firm.
“I think you have choices about what conclusions you want to draw,” Schmidt said, referring to the increase in restraints, seclusion and calls to law enforcement. She disagrees with the conclusion that the Boys’ School is a violent place.
“I know the situations leading up to those situations. I can’t share anything with you that I have. I know that there is more to the complete picture than what you’re hearing,” Schmidt said.
The Boys’ School is reviewing what led to the uptick in calls to law enforcement, but Schmidt said the combination of COVID and the behaviors of a couple students are likely to blame.
“We’re talking about getting, at any one time, a real difficult student that can come in and whose behavior can disrupt a whole dorm,” she said. “It’s a domino effect.”
But former staff — all of whom worked at the facility for multiple decades — said the recent incidents can’t be blamed on the pandemic and a couple of disruptive students. Those issues started taking shape years before, they said, and the need for law enforcement intervention could have been avoided if the Boys’ School were more actively monitored.
Judiciary committee member Provenza said the state can’t detect recurring problems like violent incidents without more information.
“How can we get ahead of that and stop it before it happens again?” she asked.
WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune explore the root causes of, and potential solutions to, those issues in the next part of this series Nov. 18.