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Autism School With $573,000 Price Tag Faces Lawsuit Amid Abuse Claims


By Jennifer Smith Richards and Jodi S. Cohen


No state agency has authority over Shrub Oak, one of the country’s most expensive therapeutic boarding schools. As a result, parents and staff have nowhere to report bruised students and medication mix-ups.

From the first months that Brett Ashinoff was at Shrub Oak International School in New York, his parents felt uneasy about the residential school for students with autism.

They worried that Brett, who already was thin, was losing weight. They said his nails weren’t getting cut. He would refuse to get into the car to return to Shrub Oak after visits home, sitting for hours on the porch until his father coaxed him into the vehicle.

His parents’ concerns, documented in email exchanges with school administrators, began soon after he started in April 2022 and grew over time.

Brett’s speech therapy was reduced because of limited staff. He wasn’t given his medication for at least five days in a row.

“Kindly accept our sincerest apologies,” Lauren Koffler, a member of the family that operates the school, wrote in an email to Brett’s mother about the medication. She said an error with the pharmacy was responsible for the lapse.

Then came a series of confrontations with overnight staff in February 2023. Brett, his parents said, had never been physically restrained at a school before going to Shrub Oak.

But employees restrained the 18-year-old, who weighed 95 pounds, at least three times one week after he became aggressive with them. One of those nights, several employees took him to a padded room and held him down on the floor.

He sustained injuries, including a cut on his leg, according to emails between the school and his parents.

When Brett called his mother crying and begging to leave, Russ Ashinoff, his father, got in his car and drove two hours from his home in New Jersey to Shrub Oak, located in Westchester County.

He said he arrived to find Brett shaking, his foot purple and swollen. His nose was bruised and cut.

“He was inconsolable, not himself,” Ashinoff said.

He took Brett to an emergency room, where he was sedated, records show. Brett had never before needed to be sedated, his father said.

Ashinoff said he tried to report suspected abuse to several agencies in New York. The attorney general’s office took his complaint but told him it didn’t have jurisdiction and referred him to the New York State Education Department (NYSED), according to the attorney general’s office.

The NYSED told Ashinoff that it, too, couldn’t do anything, he said…



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