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Dept. of Education Aware of Concerns About Midwest Academy; Search Warrants Remain Private

Jason Parrott
Midwest Academy

It appears the Iowa Department of Education was long aware of concerns about Midwest Academy but it did not have legal authority to investigate the Lee County boarding school for troubled teens.  The Associated Press reported this week that the agency considered the school an "unregulated home school."

Thomas Mayes, an attorney for the department, in 2011 declined to address allegations that a student with autism had been improperly kept in isolation and restrained. The AP reported Mayes wrote that "no matter how desirable it might be" to act, the department was powerless to regulate non-accredited schools.

In 2012, Jeff Berger, Dept. of Ed. Deputy Director, wrote that someone locally would have to report suspected abuse to the Department of Human Services because "we have no stake in this."

The emails come a few days after a district court judge in Lee County ordered that search warrants related to the school will remain private for the time being.

Judge Mary Ann Brown wrote that Iowa law does not consider search warrants and related documents, such as the applications for them, to be public records until they are returned to the court by law enforcement. She said because that has not happened yet, the search warrants should remain private.

"They are specifically confidential pursuant to the provisions of Iowa Code 808.13. As a result, those documents are not public records pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 22. Unless or until the return of the search warrant is made by law enforcement to the court, the application for the search warrant and the search warrant shall remain confidential."

The Des Moines Register is seeking the release of the search warrants and related documents, citing the public's right to know what law enforcement was looking for when it executed the search warrants at the school in late January and early February.

The court did release an application to seal the warrants and an order to do so. The applications stated that Midwest Academy owner Ben Trane was a target of a sex abuse investigation involving a student at the school and that law enforcement collected credit cards, cell phones, computers, and items with trace DNA evidence.

The newspaper had requested Brown placed a deadline on law enforcement to return the search warrants so they could be made public, but Brown refused.

"There is no provision in Iowa law that establishes a deadline for law enforcement to do so. Earlier versions of the Iowa Code did establish a deadline for returns of search warrants to be made. The legislature has specifically removed those."

Brown declined a request from the state to seal the search warrants even after they are returned to the court. She wrote the state "does not need to conceal the fact that they are conducting an investigation to protect an informant, nor does the state need to conceal the fact that they are conducting an investigation," in part because law enforcement announced the investigation to news outlets roughly five weeks ago.

Brown did rule that protected information on the search warrants will be redacted.