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The Wyoming Boys’ School unlawfully subjected residents to psychological and emotional abuse, extended periods of solitary confinement and physical harm, a complaint filed Monday in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming alleges.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services, which oversees the juvenile detention center near Worland, says the Boys’ School provides delinquent boys ages 12 to 21 with programming that focuses on psychological and emotional development, mental health therapies and “opportunities to make changes in their lives.” But, the complaint states, “nothing could be further from the truth.”

Three former Boys’ School residents — Blaise Chivers-King, Dylan Tolar and Charles “Rees” Karn — are suing the Department of Family Services, the Wyoming Boys’ School, the superintendent of the facility and nine current and former staff members for harm they claim to have suffered and violations of their civil rights. They are seeking “damages for emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and other pain and suffering on all claims allowed by law in an amount to be determined at trial.”

The complaint

The state of Wyoming operates the Boys’ School at a 40-acre campus just south of Worland. Boys are court-ordered into the facility’s custody for a variety of criminal offenses ranging from drug use to sexual abuse. The facility can house up to 60 boys, who on average stay for eight months. The average age of a resident is 16 years old.

Placements are “for an indefinite period of time,” the Boys’ School Superintendent Dale Weber told Pedrodiniz in 2022. Boys are released depending on their progression through what Weber described as “cognitive behavioral restructuring.”

While residents do attend classes at the Boys' School, there are aspects of the facility that feel like a correctional institution. Boys are required to wear uniforms, starting with an orange jumpsuit and graduating to different colored sweatsuits to indicate their progress through the program. They are also required to have their heads shaved.

An empty dormitory room is seen on Dec. 10, 2021 at the Wyoming Boys' School in Worland. Residents are locked in their rooms when they sleep at night. (Lauren Miller/Casper Star-Tribune)

Chivers-King, Tolar and Karn allege they left the Boys’ School more damaged and traumatized than when they arrived. Below is a summary of the harm they experienced, according to their 53-page complaint.

Chivers-King was at Wyoming Boys’ School between April 2020 and March 2021, when he was 15 years old, and from May 2021 to May 2022, when he was 16 years old. During his court-ordered stays, staff subjected Chivers-King to “improper and painful restraints, deprivation of meaningful human contact and association, excessive force, deprivation of medication, and ruthless psychological abuse,” the complaint claims. He was in solitary confinement approximately 20 times for periods ranging from days to weeks. Chivers-King “became so distraught during his time at the Boys’ School that he would hit his head against the brick walls, and he ripped out the metal braces on his teeth and used them to cut himself,” the complaint alleges. He regularly contemplated suicide.

Dylan Tolar was 17 and 18 during his time at the Boys’ School from June 2020 through February 2021. Staff discriminated against Tolar based on physical disabilities that restricted his movement, calling him a “slow zombie” and a “clown,” the complaint states. Because staff restricted Tolar’s use of a medically necessary brace, he allegedly suffered long-term damage to his leg. Staff unlawfully excluded Tolar from educational opportunities, because of his disabilities and mental health, locking him alone in his room for hours on end, according to the complaint.

Rees Karn did two stints at the Boys’ School between 2017 and 2021, when he was 13 to 15 years old and from 15 to 17 years old. Staff subjected Karn to long periods of solitary confinement — one time for 30 days and another time for 45 days, according to the complaint. For approximately two weeks during his 30-day stint in isolation, Karn was strapped in a restraint chair by his wrists, ankles and mid-section for up to 12 hours a day, the complaint states. During his 45 days in isolation, Karn began breaking light bulbs accessible to him in the room where he was held. His complaint alleges that staff entered the room with riot gear and tackled Karn to the ground. Defendant John Schwalbe, a dorm staff member, shoved Karn’s face into the broken glass and told him, “you want to break shit at our facility, this is what you are going to get,” according to the complaint. Staffer Thad Shaffer is also named as a defendant for allegedly breaking Karn’s wrist during the incident.

Following Karn’s release from the Boys’ School, when he was 19 years old, he strangled his girlfriend to death and was sentenced to life in prison.

At the sentencing hearing, Karn’s public defender Diane Lozano told the court about her client’s time at the Boys’ School, “which she said took a serious toll on his mental health and may have negatively impacted his ability to improve,” the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

Perfect storm

The time Tolar, Chivers-King and Karn spent at the Boys’ School overlapped with a spike in violence, the use of physical and mechanical restraints, and solitary confinement at the facility between 2019 and 2021, according to a 2022 investigation by Pedrodiniz and the Casper Star-Tribune.

Eda Uzunlar/Pedrodiniz

Their complaint sheds light on allegations of troubling conditions that have been difficult for the public to investigate. Citing juvenile privacy laws, the Wyoming Department of Family Services has refused to release reports of violent incidents between staff and residents. Pedrodiniz and the Star-Tribune relied, instead, on external police reports.

Eda Uzunlar/Pedrodiniz

Between June 2021 and January 2022, the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office received an unprecedented number of calls to the Boys’ School, according to the publicly available police records. Incidents ranged from students breaking glass 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.

“In 2021, we saw more calls for service out there,” Cpt. Richard Fernandez with the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office told the news organizations for the 2022 story. “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.

As to why the Boys’ School was struggling to create a safe environment, 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.”

A surveillance camera feed shows a solitary confinement room at the Wyoming Boys' School in Worland. The room has a small black box over the toilet seat to protect student privacy. (Lauren Miller/Casper Star-Tribune)

The plaintiffs attributed their abuse to inadequately trained staff. “The lack of training, in part, led to an unconstitutional policy, pattern, and practice of the punitive and inhumane use of isolation and restraints,” the complaint states.

“The Boys’ School fails to identify or recognize behavior as disability related and fails to provide reasonable accommodations, supports and services that these minors need,” the complaint alleges. “Instead, the Boys’ School responds by labeling their actions as misbehavior and sends minors, including Plaintiffs, to, or extends their time in, solitary confinement.”

After Pedrodiniz reported on increased violence at the Boys’ School, Superintendent Weber said he required all staff to be trained on trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approaches to troubled kids.

That training has helped, Weber said in a recent interview, but for him COVID-19 is to blame for Boys’ School’s recent struggles. Weber pointed to a decrease in the use of restraints and isolation in 2023 as evidence that pandemic restrictions were part of the problem.

A type of restraint used when transporting boys or when they’re a threat to themselves or others is seen on Dec. 10, 2021 at the Wyoming Boys' School. (Lauren Miller/Casper Star-Tribune)

“One of the huge things was lifting the restrictions that we had placed because of COVID,” Weber said. “Getting kids out of the dorm, getting them active and getting them interacting with people.”

Without those positive outlets during the pandemic, residents acted out more, Weber explained, but for the most part, he attributed the spike in the use of restraints and seclusion to just a few kids.

“When our numbers were the absolute worst, we had a handful of students that were not like any students we've ever seen before or after,” Weber said. “They were willing to become so violent and so aggressive.”

Chivers-King’s and Karn’s Boys School stays overlapped with the period of heightened violence evident in the police reports and attributed by Weber to a small number of students.

Violence begets calls for reform

In 1995, a Wyoming Boys’ School runaway shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy. Fremont County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Crerar was transporting a 17-year-old from the Uinta County Jail to the Boys’ School when the boy got a hold of the officer’s gun. Crerar died from a gunshot to the head, the Casper Star-Tribune reported at the time.

In the wake of the tragedy, then-Gov. Jim Geringer called on Wyoming to improve its response to troubled kids. “This tragedy indicates with a little more urgency the need to resolve the issues of juvenile policy and placement of juveniles,” Geringer said.

Just months before the incident, the 1995 Legislature rejected a measure to create a permanent commission on juvenile justice that would have coordinated law enforcement, schools and social services “to assure early intervention in the lives of troubled youth,” the Casper Star-Tribune reported.

“The state only steps in when there is a crisis situation,” Geringer said. “I would like to see the state helping communities to focus on juvenile delinquency prevention.”

A camera looks into the detention room at the Wyoming Boys' School. Words engraved by students adorn the door frame. (Lauren Miller/Casper Star-Tribune)

Geringer’s call for reform, which has been slow to come, was echoed in public officials' responses to the spike in violence at the Boys’ School 25 years later.

John Worrall, then-Washakie County Attorney, told Pedrodiniz in 2022 that many of the residents at the Boys’ School have complex needs. He got to know their stories because when law enforcement responded to violence at the Boys’ School, Worrall also got involved.

“Most of the young men at the Boys’ School have histories of abuse and trauma,” Worrall said. “There is the issue, because I don’t know that they’re getting everything they need. I don’t know if it’s possible — given budgetary constraints.”

A type of restraint used when transporting boys or when they’re a threat to themselves or others is seen on Dec. 10, 2021 at the Wyoming Boys' School. (Lauren Miller/Casper Star-Tribune)

Worrall called on the state to decide that the youth are worth investing in.

“The stakes are: We’re gonna have a whole bunch of our youth in this state totally fall between the cracks, and we may never get them back. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

In 2022, the Wyoming Legislature passed House Bill 37 - Juvenile justice data reporting requiring the Department of Family Services to standardize the collection of juvenile justice data to better inform where services are needed. The program, however, is not mandated to launch until July 2024.

The attorneys

Tolar, who appears by and through his mother, Chivers-King and Karn are represented by ALM Law, LLC, a firm specializing in “children harmed while in the custody of child welfare systems,” as well as Rathod Mohamedbhai, LLC.

In November 2021, attorneys with Rathod Mohamedbhai helped the family of 23-year-old Elijah McClain reach a $15 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit brought against the city of Aurora, Colo. McClain, a Black man, died after police put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine. In Wyoming, the firm settled a lawsuit in 2019 against the city of Rawlins for $925,000 after two Rawlins Police officers shot and killed Colorado resident John Randall Veach in 2015.

“No human being should be subjected to solitary confinement,” Rathod Mohamedbhai-attorney Ciara Anderson said in a press release. “Blaise, Rees, and Dylan are forever changed because of the cruel treatment they endured while in Wyoming’s custody. It is astonishing that the abuses our clients suffered have been shielded from the public’s knowledge for so long. Wyoming must take a hard look at how children are being treated.”

“The Wyoming Boys’ School was entrusted to care for these three vulnerable boys, but utterly failed to do so,” said Allison Mahoney, with ALM Law. “No child should ever endure the horrors of abuse that Rees, Blaise, and Dylan experienced, especially within a system meant to rehabilitate and support them.”

Tennessee Jane Watson is Pedrodiniz's deputy managing editor. She was a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism and Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter. She lives in Laramie. Contact...

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  1. If the kids adhere to the Wyoming boys school program, it is designed to correct negative behavior and assists kids in learning the proper way to deal with their emotions. I do believe some of these kids should be checked into a mental health institution as an alternative to the wyoming boys school, however, none of the mental health institutions would be prepared or trained to deal with the type of students or children the Wyoming boys school takes in. I thank God for my time at WBS. Though it was court ordered, without the direction, council, and therapy I received at the Wyoming boys school, I am sure I wouldnt have made it in life as far as I have. That place has saved countless lives and brought many disturbed young men from darkness into light. I thank WBS and all it's workers for what they did for me years ago. I will be praying for the schools deliverance from these false and obviously unjust claims.

  2. i was in the boys school twice in my teen years i arrived in the boy school my first hitch the weekend after the sheriff was killed i spent 9 months in that time i experienced a little of what the accusations when i got out and went back my 2nd hitch the 11 month and a day i spent was the worst being called fat being pushed beyond my limits i was stuck in my room with just a blanket for my last two week only to be pulled iut by one staff member to be yelled at there is also the time one particular staff member was overly in my face and i confident in another about my problems and it got worse i was ridiculed about it i was treated like i told on him and the retaliation begin from there and somebody should help with more guideance and training to help our youth not always lock them up and throw away the keys

  3. I grew up as a “staff kid” at a rural Youth Authority facility in the Sierra foothills of Calaveras County, CA (mid 50s to late 60s). The boys ranged from 6 to 13 years of age. Most staff lived in state housing on the facility. Staff kids were bussed to grammar and high schools at the county seat, about 12 miles away. All-in-all, not a bad life for a staff kid, with creeks to swim in, game to hunt, bicycles to ride, etc.

    As for the wards of the state, I saw plenty of abuse, verbal and physical, of the wards. I suspect there was much more abuse going on, in the privacy of the “lodges” where the kids were housed. Even though we staff kids were not supposed to interact with wards, we saw them up close when they were outside, marching in military formation, to the orders of their “supervisors”. I suspect that many of them suffered mental trauma as well, on top of the physical abuse. To say the least, I was glad not to be a ward of the state.

    When I drive past the boys “school” (the facility where I spent my childhood had “school” in its name, too!) south of Worland, I always wonder just what it must be like to be a juvenile ward of the state in Wyoming. From the charges that have been leveled, I conclude that things correctional certainly have not improved over the decades since my childhood...

  4. Wyoming juvenile justice system took my son from out home at age 13 for a crime he committed. He was mentioned in this article, Dylan Tolar. Dylan suffers from numerous physical and mental disabilities that were determined by Doctors and Psy ologists throughout his life. I always felt like I had to fight for him to recieve services during school. He would have been one of those children who would have fallen through the cracks if I wasn't there fighting. When you meet Dylan you would notice there was something going on with him but he has learned over the years he's treated with more respect when he “pretends to understand what you are telling him.” This has harmed him in more ways than helped him. But, before entering the juvenile system he was always respectful to others and did what he was told as far as he was able to understand. Dylan was shifted to 6 different placements within the system. There was even a time when juvenile probation was pushing for the Wyoming Boys School, the Judge at the time said absolutely not, he is not appropriate for the boys school and that will not be brought up again in his case. She also mentioned that this was a complicated case and was not sure what to do with my son.
    In the mean time that Judge retired and a new Judge took my son's case. Again juvenile probation recommended the boys school and the new Judge agreed. So he was sent to the boys school. I was told he would be a part of special classes to help him with the problem he had and that the WBS had the best program in Wyoming. I also trusted that they would care for my son and take in account his disabilities when “making expectations” of my son. The main director of the WBS facility told me he encouraged family involvement. I was only able to speak to my son on the phone 4x. I was never allowed to visit him. I was only allowed to write him letters. Most of my letters never got to him. We knew this because Dylan recieves botox injections in his Right leg every 3 months. It's was coming up on a year and I had been working on trying to get him these injections. At first they told me their doctor would do it. I wasn't comfortable with this idea but had no choice. Then in October 2020 a nurse from the facility called me and told me I would have to take him to his rehab doctor in SLC to do the botox injections. I immediately wrote him a letter to tell him I get to pick him up in lander, but was forced to check him into jain for the night then go to SLC and the same thing back. He wrote me a few letters in November but nothing about our trip. December 1st I picked Dylan up in Lander and he was so excited & confused. He thought he was getting out? When I asked him if he got my letters about going and what we were doing he started to sob the while way from lander to Rock springs he told me about the abuse he was going through. The next day we called his DFS worker to report the abuse. He told us he had a hard time believing anything we had to say but he would let his supervisor know anyway. My orders were until these issues were resolved i was to take him back as planned. There was nothing I wanted to do at that time becides drive him far far away. But, i needed to think of my husband and other kids so i took him back. In the weeks to come i had to keep calling DFS for anything to happen. Dylan had no idea what his expectations were and if he would ask they would tell him he was arguing. At one time the dorm director told me there might be a slight physical disability but there is absolutely nothing wrong with his brain and until he realizes this he will be there for a long time.” I questioned her about MRIs he's had and numerous doctors telling me about a brain abnormality. She would either change the subject or argue with me.
    I was told continuously told by the dorm director that my son was in boys prison. And he was not fit for society. Then would tell Dylan that she talked to me and I would tell her that he had no home to come back to and that I don't want him anymore; which was very far from the truth! Finally he was moved ro dorm 1 from dorm 4. He reported to me that it was like going to heaven from hell. An investigation was started. I got a report about 2 weeks later saying the investigation was unsubstantiated. I must have called 5 supervisors before talking to the lady who did the investigation. She told me
    “Dylan ” that was it! No staff, case worker, me?? I couldn't understand how you can solve a case by only speaking to 1 person?? So I pushed and pushed. I had asked the MDÞ team to give me time to find help for my son before he came home many times....in the end they called me on February 1st and I had to drive to work and to pick him up on February 5th...nothing more, no help, NOTHING!
    Let me tell you these past 3 years have been a struggle. There have been amazing people there have been horrible people. No matter what he had done he did not deserve the abuse he suffered from the very hands and mouths that I entrusted my child to

  5. Not saying any kid should be abused, but how violent are these kids being in general? What else is the place supposed to do besides lock them up and restrain them if they are assaulting staff or other kids? Kids don't just go to the Boy's School for no reason.

  6. Thank you for the great coverage on a tragic story. I hope they get justice. There are some real monsters in this world.

  7. If the public can’t be privy to individual reports of maltreatment at juvenile institutions, it can at least investigate the protections that serve to minimize institutional abuse. Legislators and the public should be asking some basic questions:
    *How are residents informed of their rights at juvenile institutions (and what are residents’ protections from staff retribution in making complaints)?
    *What are the procedures for investigating resident complaints and/or reports of abuse, maltreatment or denial of residents’ rights?
    *Are reports of abuse or violations investigated by teams that include trained investigators or other experts outside the institution (or agency, depending on the complaint)?
    *How are incidents of maltreatment, seclusion, restraint, etc. tracked, reported and reviewed (and by whom)?
    *What is the training regimen for new staff and ongoing education for senior staff; and (perhaps most importantly)
    *Does the institution undergo periodic reviews, visits or audits from outside experts?
    These processes should all be documented in institutional and oversight agency policy manuals, and the agency should allow its investigators, policy experts and other staff to explain how they work in practice.
    An earlier pedrodiniz story on the Boys’ School quoted John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice saying, “What Wyoming really needs is a transparent review that would provide some recommendations for enhancements of the current practice.” I believe that recommendation is right on point.

  8. These terrible things happen more often to our children than we want to think. Contact the Wyoming Children's Law Center if you've personally experienced Wyoming's juvenile justice system (detention, boys' schools, suspension, or being charged as an adult) - we are searching for adult and youth voices to help our cause of fixing the broken system.

    Reach us at (307) 632-3614

  9. Watson's work shows the mean underbelly of Wyoming State Government. Shave a kid's head, make him wear a colored jumpsuit, walk in lines with no talking. Use of physical take downs and isolation rather than processing with trained, pro-social adults are reflective of this approach. “Cognitive behavioral restructuring” is code for, “follow the rules or suffer.” Research has demonstrated over and over that this approach - what has been called a “boot camp” model - to juvenile rehabilitation teaches kids to follow the rules while incarcerated, but gives them no skills to deal with the real world once they leave.

    Cognitive processing therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy in group settings have been shown to have positive results with this population, but that treatment is given by mental health professionals, generally those with a MSW or MA. The Boys School is a milieu and positive adult role models are core to any treatment. Adults don't enforce the rules. They help the boys process their emotions and behaviors, recognize them, and take responsibility for them. Evidence of this healthy processing is the teen chooses to follow the rules.

    Research shows that juvenile offenders have a much higher incidence of mental disorder than the general population of juveniles. Most, if not all those teens at the Boys School have experienced significant trauma early in life. PTSD is common and underlies many bad choices. And yet approaches to teach kids how to relieve their PTSD is not part of the Boys School Approach. Rather, staff actually exacerbates residents' PTSD through the Boot Camp approach. The only way a kid who has made bad choices can learn from his mistakes is first to take responsibility for how he has hurt someone, and secondly, then to explore how he has been hurt, and how he inflicts his own pain on others.

    Budgetary constraints - not enough money to treat these kids' complex needs. Where does this State of Wyoming attitude stop? With Foster kids? Or with kids being neglected or abused? DFS hides what we need to know. What Watson's work shows us going on at the Boys School can be seen going on in all state systems caring for kids. Even school districts. How many counselors and social workers have an office at your child's school? Wyoming has the highest rate of adolescent suicide in the country, an effect demonstrating how poorly we care for our children. We can do better.

    1. It’s funny how you don’t mention how Mr carbs tried to muder a Garuda at the WBS. Or how in jail at the worland detention center Reese had to be in protective custody cause he verbally abused the other inmate at the worland detention center. This is the liberal media writing these articles the same media that lies to the people to push an agenda.