Escape in Sanders County

No news is bad news for Spring Creek’s “runners”


On the evening of Friday, Sept. 9, a 16-year-old boy was found approximately 30 feet below the lip of a cliff above the Clark Fork River west of Thompson Falls. The boy was a student at Spring Creek Lodge Academy, a specialty boarding school in Sanders County and member of the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools and Programs (WWASPS). Two sources close to Spring Creek told the Independent that Adrian Sanders was being transported from Spring Creek to an associated facility in Jamaica when he escaped his teen transport service, Second Chance Transport of Thompson Falls. He was later found by search and rescue personnel below the cliffs behind the Rimrock Lodge motel, one mile west of Thompson Falls on State Hwy 200. He was transported to Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains.

Details of the incident and the extent of the boy’s injuries have been hard to come by.

Queries directed to traditional sources of information including the local sheriff’s department, ambulance service and hospital, have turned up little or no information. It is still unknown if an investigation into the boy’s attempted escape and subsequent fall and injury was ever conducted.

The level of secrecy surrounding even minor details related to the incident is startling. Officials at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital refuse to confirm whether the boy was ever a patient. A Thompson Falls Volunteer Ambulance official refuses to comment on whether or not the ambulance company even responded to the incident. The local sheriff says there was no investigation into or documentation of the incident other than an EMS/Fire initial dispatch report, which includes 18 lines of frustratingly vague narrative of the response to the incident. The private company responsible for transporting Adrian Sanders refused to comment other than to say that their charge suffered a “minor concussion” and that everything “turned out fine.” Neither Spring Creek Lodge’s director nor the school’s principal returned phone calls regarding the incident. A spokeswoman for Spring Creek said the school is “not authorized to give information on the student.” Information on where Adrian Sanders is from, why he was being transported, how he escaped, the extent of his injuries and the nature of the rescue have all been withheld from the Independent or were never documented.

The day before Adrian Sanders’ fall, Spring Creek’s principal, Michele “Mickey” Manning, took her seat on the new governor-appointed Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs board. One of the legislatively mandated board’s missions is to “examine the benefit of licensing alternative residential or outdoor programs as a public service to monitor and maintain a high standard of care and to ensure the safety and well-being of adolescents and parents using the programs.”

According to language in House Bill 628, the law creating the new board, “necessary licensure processes and safety standards for programs are best developed and monitored by the professionals that are actively engaged in providing private alternative adolescent care.”

Manning could not be reached for comment on the Adrian Sanders incident, so it is unclear if incidents like that of Sept. 9 will be reported to the board for consideration in the development of “safety standards” for the therapeutic boarding school industry in Montana.

In trying to find out what happened on Sept. 9, we called the Clark Fork Valley Hospital (CFVH) to obtain a condition report on Adrian Sanders. It is common journalistic practice for reporters to contact hospitals for basic information about victims of accidents to which law enforcement, fire or search and rescue personnel respond. When the Independent contacted CFVH, we were denied any information on Sanders, including whether he had been admitted or recorded in the hospital’s patient directory. We were told that due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, the hospital could not legally provide any information, including whether Sanders was even transported to CFVH.

In fact, according to the American Hospital Association’s “Guidelines for Releasing Information on the Condition of Patients,” hospitals may release the patient’s “one-word” condition and location in the healthcare facility to individuals who inquire about the patient by name, including members of the media. One-word condition terms include “good,” “fair,” “serious,” or “critical.” That is the policy followed by the area’s two largest hospitals, St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center in Missoula. Such condition information is commonly reported in the press.

After being repeatedly denied condition information by multiple CFVH sources, the Independent contacted CFVH’s chief executive officer, Margo Harrison. Harrison refused to disclose the hospital’s policy on releasing patient condition reports to the press, again citing HIPAA. When we argued that HIPPA does not preclude her from giving basic patient condition information, Harrison had this to say: “Well I’m an attorney, so if you want to argue federal law, let’s go.”

Before we were able to present our case, Harrison hung up on us.

Tom Eggensperger, president of the Thompson Falls Volunteer Ambulance (and editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Sanders County Ledger) also refused to provide any information on the call. Eggensperger additionally refused to confirm that the ambulance service responded to a call at the Rimrock Lodge.

“You can thank your buddy Bill Clinton,” Eggensperger told us, by way of explaining his secrecy.

When asked what he meant by “your buddy Bill Clinton,” Eggensperger had this to say: “I’ve read your Independent. It’s about as left-wing as it gets. I’m telling you because of your buddy Bill Clinton we can’t give out that information.”

When pressed, Eggensperger said the Sanders county attorney had instructed him to not give out any information. Then he hung up.

“I don’t remember a conversation of that nature with Tom,” said Bob Zimmerman, county attorney, when told of Eggensperger’s comments. “I do routinely meet with incoming attendants and go through the fact that they are not allowed to say anything about the medical condition of anything they respond to.”

Zimmerman did not say Eggensperger was prohibited from confirming the EMS response that night.

After several attempts to get information from the Sanders County Sheriff’s Office, in which we were initially told that no sheriff’s deputies had responded to the scene, Sheriff Gene Arnold faxed a copy of the EMS/Fire Initial Report. According to the report, Patty Witt, owner of Second Chance Transport (and “family rep supervisor” at Spring Creek Lodge) showed up at the sheriff’s office at 9:49 p.m. to report a missing male juvenile “runner” from Second Chance Transport. She stated that Second Chance had been looking for the “runner” for one hour. While dispatch was taking Witt’s report, a search and rescue official radioed in to the sheriff’s office to report a “male over cliff.” But according to Arnold, no detailed investigation of the incident was ever undertaken and no missing persons complaint was ever completed. The incident was treated as an accident, and a deputy who responded to the scene never interviewed the injured party, Adrian Sanders.

According to the report, the “juv” (Sanders) fell 25-30 feet off a cliff and was conscious but not responsive. St. Patrick Hospital’s Life Flight helicopter was dispatched to transport the youth from CFVH to St. Patrick; however, the helicopter was turned back due to snowy conditions. No other information regarding the extent of Sanders’ injury, condition or current whereabouts has been released.

“If we thought there was a crime, or if a crime was reported, we would investigate it,” said Sheriff Arnold. “We were told he took off, which happens quite a bit.”

Arnold said he didn’t know the name of the boy who fell off the cliff, but added that he was told the boy was placed in another school the following day.

“You’re asking all these questions…maybe I do need an investigation. First I’d have to talk to the county attorney to make sure I’m not stepping on any toes.”

The sheriff said he’d let us know what he finds out.

In other words, there appears to be no official record of how or why Adrian Sanders, while in the care of a Spring Creek Lodge employee moonlighting at her transport company, and en route from one WWASPS facility to another, escaped, or how he wound up dazed and confused on the rocks above the Clark Fork River.

According to a source close to Spring Creek, students are transported to Tranquility Bay (a WWASPS facility near St. Elizabeth, Jamaica) for violating the school’s zero tolerance policy. According to Spring Creek’s parent manual, such violation may include “acts of violence” or “dangerous, severely disruptive or extremely defiant behavior.” If a teen exhibits such behavior, that student can be expelled and the parents are given the option of enrolling their teen in Tranquility Bay, shipping them there in the care of a teen transport service like Second Chance. If the teen arrived in Jamaica, he or she would have no way to file a complaint with local authorities in Montana. Once placed in a WWASPS program such as Spring Creek or Tranquility Bay, teens are not allowed unsupervised contact with the outside world. Likewise, local authorities have no jurisdiction once the teen is transported across state lines or U.S. borders.

In the case of Adrian Sanders, neither he nor his parents have filed a complaint with the Sanders County Sheriff’s Office. Due to the secrecy and stonewalling by those charged with Sanders’ care, we may never know the details of what happened to him that night.

It’s worth noting that in its initial reporting, the Independent never used the names “Adrian Sanders,” “Spring Creek,” or “Second Chance Transport.” However, the paper later learned from a source familiar with the incident that school officials became aware of the paper’s inquiries less than 24 hours after initial calls to the local hospital, EMS service and law enforcement officials. Clearly, Sanders County officials are capable of sharing information when it serves the cause of secrecy.

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