SHERIDAN — Local crime reports are littered with pulled fire alarms, runaways and more serious allegations deriving from one area unfamiliar to most Sheridanites — Lane Lane. For others, though, the double-named roadway elicits grief and sometimes fear of a break-in or stolen item in the area’s residents.
The fears derive from crimes committed by some students living at Normative Services, Inc., a school facility just west of town, and citizens and law enforcement agents continue looking for solutions to the ongoing problems.
Sequel Youth and Family Services is a national behavioral health organization based in Huntsville, Alabama. The organization manages a program in Sheridan at Normative Services, Inc., a live-in facility providing “an array of services for at-risk, adjudicated and emotionally disturbed youth, while providing high quality academic, physical and vocational education in a safe and nurturing environment,” according to the organization’s website. The facility focuses on therapeutic intervention and redirection of negative behavior.
What the community sees, though, is a nuisance. Recently, Facebook conversations in Sheridan have included demands for answers from NSI on what it will do to reduce the numbers of issues its residents have caused in the community.
Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office tallied 35 total incidents originating at NSI through Aug. 1 of this year — 21 of which were runaway cases involving 36 juveniles. The 14 other cases included calls for service to the school itself for miscellaneous incidents. Four NSI-related cases included the investigation of stolen vehicles — three investigated by Sheridan Police Department and one by SCSO.
In 2017, SCSO recorded a total of 41 incidents coming from NSI — 22 of which were for runaways involving 40 juveniles and one stolen vehicle. The trend decreased slightly in 2018 with 36 incidents — 18 of them runaway cases involving 29 total juveniles. Two cases resulted in criminal trespass/entry and one case involved a juvenile injured while running away and trespassing onto another property, according to SCSO.
Not local children
Some neighbors and community members have expressed concern that no students under NSI’s care are from Wyoming. In a presentation to Sheridan County commissioners July 22, then Executive Director Gary Flohr said NSI had 16 Wyoming students enrolled in its programming 18 months ago, but that is when the agency saw a drastic switch. Now, NSI serves just three Wyoming-based students.
“…(Wyoming Department of Family Services) decided that they weren’t going to place kids in residential the way they were now,” Flohr said. “There was a real directive for them — particularly some of our judges in certain parts of the state that were using this a lot — were given a directive to use the boys’ school and girls’ school.”
Students voluntarily enter NSI through education-based referrals or are court-ordered to NSI’s specific programming depending on fit and space available. Of the 80 children currently in NSI’s programming, 54 come from Montana, 20 from California, two from Oregon and one from Illinois. Fifty-two boys and 28 girls attend NSI. Most California students, Flohr said, are not court-ordered but instead are referrals from educational institutions as post-adoptive children. The organization employs nine full-time therapists, and 30-40% of the student population participates in intensive drug and alcohol treatment programs.
Flohr said the student-to-staff ratio sits at 6-1 and sometimes 4-1, meaning anywhere from three to four staff members monitor each facility, or house, on campus.
Relationships with neighbors
Community members living close to the NSI campus have told The Press they’re fearful of letting their children out in backyards because of potential interactions with runaways. Sheridan resident Will Raley had a personal vehicle broken into and items taken out of it and a truck stolen off of his property near Airport Road. In speaking with police, the runaway indicated he had observed items in the household through a window in addition to the thefts.
“I told [then director Gary Flohr] my concerns, I said ‘I have a 5-year-old and I have a 2-year-old, and I come from Texas. I know what crime is like and it startled me as a parent if this kid had the nerve to know that my daughter’s windows were open,’” Raley said. “It kind of startled me as a parent thinking I’m that many feet away, if he gets in that room, we would have not known it’s so quiet of an area.
“That kind of alerted me, so I told Gary (Flohr) and Gary told me, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about with these kids.’ But his story and the Missoula police’s rap sheet on this kid ain’t jiving,” Raley continued.
Community notifications of runaways are inconsistent, but law enforcement agencies send out Code Red alerts to those near the area when they are notified of NSI runaways. Code Red phone call alerts are initiated by Sheridan County dispatch and call back automatically at least three times if the phone call is not answered on the first few tries, meaning a middle-of-the-night escapee disrupts evening and nighttime routines for local families.
Runaways are not always reported immediately, though, taking citizens off guard if they see runaways sprinting by their homes. The river runs between Holly Townsend’s home and the NSI campus. Even with the natural barrier, Townsend and her family have witnessed students running away during all times of the year and in all types of weather since 2017.
“We had kids running away — (NSI) didn’t even know they had runaways — we saw them on our property and my husband went and retrieved them with our dogs,” Townsend said of a 2017 encounter with NSI students.
Townsend said in 2017 NSI administrators were accommodating of the issues. As years passed and more incidents occurred, runaways continued once or twice a week throughout the nights and the relationship between the school and the family faltered.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson suggests to homeowners in the Goose Creek drainage area and neighbors of Normative Services, Inc. secure outbuildings, vehicles and homes to prevent potential break-ins by runaways.
“(Securing your property), because that’s the right thing to do even if there aren’t runaways, is the best thing to do,” Thompson said. “Then when you do see something out of place, even when you don’t know if there’s a runaway, please give us a call, police department or sheriff’s office, wherever you’re at give us a call and we’ll look into it.”
When community runaways are reported to dispatch, Thompson said it usually takes one or two deputies away from normal patrol. For NSI runaways, though, he mobilizes all deputies on shift because of the type of students NSI accepts — some court-ordered students and others by referral from educational institutions for behavioral or psychological issues.
SPD officers also respond if the runaway is suspected to be within the city’s jurisdiction. Usually, runaways head straight for town. Flohr said they often run to the top of the hill behind NSI and divert directly to the airport grounds, which sits out of SPD’s jurisdiction but remains close on Big Horn Avenue and Brundage Lane.
Flohr explained to commissioners that staff members lock up students’ sneakers after 7 p.m. each day to try and deter sprinters. If students run away and are returned to NSI, they often will take away their footwear altogether and require students to remain under constant supervision for a period of two or three days.
Legally, though, unless under court orders, runaways are not violating the law until they commit a crime, like recent thefts or burglaries. NSI is private and some individuals choose to check themselves in for services. NSI runaways are, under law, just like a disgruntled teenager walking out on a fight with his or her parent for a couple hours.
“There’s a lot of resources expended on it,” Thompson said in relation to how local law enforcement approaches NSI runaways. “And we have a lot of meetings every year or two to try and stem this and so not only the resources on the street, but the administrative, and trying to collaborate with them to get this under control has been pretty time consuming also.”
Flohr attributed staff turnover to recent struggles in keeping students contained on campus.
“We hit some changeover in positions,” Flohr said. “We lost some key people, (including) my group living director, who’s like second in command, my right-hand person.”
Flohr said with a high-risk job and low wages, it’s difficult to compete in a community like Sheridan for qualified and effective employees.
“For us to compete in this community, we’ve got to raise our wages,” Flohr said. “And to a high number compared to what we’re at now. Not many people will work for $12 and a quarter for what we do when you can go out at the truck stop and work as a night clerk for $12.50.”
New trends in facilities like NSI have also created challenges as emphasis is placed on less physical contact with students.
“Basically you don’t restrain unless it’s danger of self or danger of others,” Flohr said.
Flohr said many students are behavioral in nature, thus often responding emotionally and creating a potential runaway situation quickly.
Solutions on the horizon
While Flohr told commissioners that NSI administration can’t even entice community members — and especially the school’s neighbors — to attend a free community picnic on the NSI campus each year, hopes remain high that relationships will be mended.
Flohr said the agency soon plans to construct a 10-foot non-climb fence on the back side of the property where most students escape. In addition, the agency installed 40 cameras on campus around two years ago and will add 20 additional cameras to its new building in August, Flohr said.
In response to requests from The Sheridan Press for in-person or telephone interviews with administration, an emailed letter through a public relations firm from Mandy Moses, chief operating officer for Sequel Youth and Family Services, indicated the company will install window alarms and cameras in all houses at NSI by mid-August, with the exception of one home that will soon not house any students.
In addition, the vice president of Sequel Youth Services sent two additional administrators from other Sequel facilities to “put more eyes on what’s going on out here,” Flohr said. In addition, Flohr is moving to another sector of the company.
“I’m stepping down from my role (July 29),” Flohr told county commissioners of his executive director position. “We have a new director coming in and starts (July 29). I’m sticking around through the month of August. I’m going to stay with the company because what we’re going to do is we’re going to develop statistics.”
Clayton Carr replaced Flohr as executive director in Sheridan, and Sequel hired a new group living director, staff development director, three new program directors and additional overnight staff.