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Another Montana therapeutic boarding school closing

| September 28, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A therapeutic boarding school in northwestern Montana, which state inspectors learned had once made boys sleep outside in winter conditions without proper clothing as punishment, closed on Friday.

Staffers confirmed to the Montana State News Bureau on Tuesday that the 16-bed Wood Creek Academy near Thompson Falls was shutting down. A message had also been posted on the program's website, which had been pulled down by Friday.

Wood Creek Academy, a residential boarding school for boys ages 13 to 18, had been the subject of two complaints filed with the state within the past year and inspections uncovered other infractions.

The state health department sent inspectors to the boarding school in January in response to a complaint. The inspection found two boys ran away from the school one morning in January and Wood Creek Academy staff waited for more than an hour before calling law enforcement.

As punishment for running away, staff prohibited the boys from having any interaction with their peers for three days. Such punishment is prohibited under state regulations. The inspector reported the boys also were sent to sleep in shorts and T-shirts in tents as nighttime temperatures dipped as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 Celsius).

A 17-year-old boy who sneaked out at night in August 2020 was located in Seattle about three weeks later. He had been at the boarding school for more than two years, his mother told the Missoulian.

An investigation that year found the program also had used excessive physical exercise as punishment, which is prohibited by state rules.

In March 2021, the state health department approved Wood Creek's corrective plan, which included installing a nighttime alarm and using checklists to document rounds every 30 minutes at night. A corrective plan reached in May called for better documentation.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services was aware of Wood Creek Academy's closure, but spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the department did not revoke the facility's license.

An investigative series by the Missoulian newspaper into the private therapeutic boarding school industry in Montana led lawmakers to place oversight of such programs with the health department in 2019. It had been mostly self-regulated by industry members prior to that.

Within a month of taking over regulation of the programs, the health department removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids near Eureka and later revoked its license. By late 2020, eight of Montana's 19 programs had closed. With Wood Creek Academy's closure, nine licensed therapeutic boarding school programs remain.