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An Employee at an Illinois School We Reported On Has Been Charged With Battering a 7-Year-Old Boy

A ProPublica and Chicago Tribune investigation found that schools throughout the state misused seclusion and restraint tactics against Illinois children. The criminal case is the second in the last year of an employee charged with mistreating a child.

Gages Lake School is part of the Special Education District of Lake County. It serves young students with behavioral disabilities. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

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This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

A Gages Lake School worker has been arrested and charged with battering a 7-year-old student in the school’s seclusion room space, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said Monday.

The aide was assigned to work in an area called “office intervention,” where workers take students who have been removed from class for disruptive behavior. Records show that Justin Cole, 35, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, had been working as a paraprofessional for about three weeks when, on Feb. 27, school administrators notified police about an incident earlier in the day.

A Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation in December revealed numerous child welfare, police and other investigations at the school, which regularly put children in a seclusion area and physically restrained them. The news organizations’ “The Quiet Rooms” investigation found that schools throughout the state misused and overused the practices, which state law said only were allowed when there was a physical safety concern.

It’s the second time in the last year that an employee at Gages Lake, which serves about 115 students with behavioral disabilities, has been charged with a crime related to mistreatment of a child inside the school’s seclusion rooms. The school is part of the Special Education District of Lake County.

Another former aide who worked in the Gages Lake behavior management office was arrested and charged in October with six counts of reckless conduct for allegedly using “excessive force” on children. He pleaded not guilty and the case is pending.

In the most recent case, sheriff’s deputies allege Cole used “excessive force” in responding to a child who pushed him. Cole picked up a pillow “and struck the seven-year-old in the head” with his hand, using the pillow as a barrier between his hand and the boy’s head, according to the sheriff’s investigation.

“This caused the boy to fall to the ground and begin crying,” the sheriff’s office said.

Cole was put on unpaid leave in February and then fired this month, records show.

“Essentially, he lost his temper while assisting a highly dysregulated student and did not exercise our protocols for de-escalation or calling in other staff for help,” Meagan Dwyer, who oversees behavior help for students at the school, wrote in a letter to parents in late February. She told parents that another staff member had notified administrators of the incident.

Valerie Donnan, the SEDOL superintendent, did not answer questions about Cole or the incident, instead providing the letter sent by Dwyer and another she sent to parents Friday after the Lake County state’s attorney issued a warrant for Cole’s arrest.

Donnan wrote that Cole had received “extensive” training in how to work with students who have behavioral challenges. Attempts to reach Cole and his attorney for comment were unsuccessful Monday. He was charged with one count of misdemeanor battery.

From May until December 2019, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services opened more than 20 child welfare investigations into mistreatment of children at Gages Lake.

Surveillance video from the school gathered by DCFS and referenced in the agency’s reports describe workers grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground in “the office,” which was a cluster of four seclusion spaces — some with lockable doors, others open. All of the doors were removed by late November as the school dealt with scrutiny from investigators and from the Illinois State Board of Education.

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Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

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