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Heather Vogell: Cracking Down on Two Schools’ Use of Restraints

August 14, 2014

Investigators found a systematic breakdown in how educators at the schools employed restraints and seclusions.

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Image from Flickr via Thomas Favre-Bulle

By Heather Vogell
By arrangement with ProPublica.

Federal investigators have faulted two Virginia schools for pinning down and isolating disabled students improperly, saying the schools used the practices routinely as a “one-size fits all” response to disruptive behavior despite evidence they didn’t work.

Rather than focusing on specific incidents, the investigators found a systematic breakdown in how educators at the schools employed restraints and seclusions. The school-wide scope of the findings signals that the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights expects schools to pay close attention to how they are implementing the potentially dangerous tactics.

“It says our default response to misbehavior can’t be restraint and seclusion,” said Angela Ciolfi, a lawyer with the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center, which worked on the complaint that prompted the investigation.

ProPublica reported in June that students nationwide were restrained or secluded more than 267,000 times in the 2012 school year. Our analysis of federal data revealed that despite a near-consensus that the risky practices should be used rarely, some schools rely on them regularly—even daily—to control children.

Hundreds of students have been injured—some seriously—as a result.

“In many cases staff put their hands on him,” Reichhardt said. “And that escalated very quickly.”

The civil rights office’s July 29 findings come at a time when federal action on the issue appears to be otherwise in a holding pattern. Congressional bills to limit the practices have stalled amid opposition from some school groups and Republicans.

The complaint that started the investigation was filed by a teenager who was sent to PACE East in Prince William County southwest of Washington, D.C., because of unruly behavior. The boy—referred to as M.C. in the complaint—had “significant” mental health problems that included depression and anxiety, said his lawyer, Bill Reichhardt. His family, who is Hispanic, spoke limited English.

Instead of providing the services the boy needed, Reichhardt said, PACE East staff often responded to relatively minor infractions—such as refusing to follow directions—with harsh measures such as physically restraining him.

“In many cases staff put their hands on him,” Reichhardt said. “And that escalated very quickly.”

One confrontation with staff was so volatile police were called in. The boy said an officer “busted his lip” while handling him, according to the original complaint.

Staff got into the habit of regularly using the tactics as a way of controlling children’s behavior, Reichhardt said. “That is extremely problematic and, in my opinion, dangerous.”

Reichhardt said he noticed while looking into the boy’s case that other students had encountered a similar pattern of routine restraints and seclusions—including at PACE East’s sister school, PACE West. The two schools function as “last stops” before institutional care for district students with serious emotional and behavioral problems.

Staff got into the habit of regularly using the tactics as a way of controlling children’s behavior, Reichhardt said. “That is extremely problematic and, in my opinion, dangerous.”

The schools’ records contained no evidence of injuries to children. But the decision said restraint and seclusion were “widespread” and “repeated” at the schools, with no indication that staff tried less restrictive alternatives first.

As much as 40 percent of the student body at PACE West experienced a restraint or seclusion in the 2012 school year, according to the federal decision, amounting to 219 uses. PACE East records showed 33 students were restrained or secluded 144 times that year.

Despite the frequent use of restraints and seclusion, the two schools and the district had reported zero instances of either practice to federal data collectors, investigators noted. The schools also failed to “consistently and adequately notify” parents when their children had been subjected them to the techniques.

The schools often failed to properly evaluate students’ behavior and develop plans to prevent the sort of crises that often bring on restraints or seclusions.

Children missed out on academics while stuck for hours in a time-out area and more restrictive padded seclusion room, or while being placed in holds, investigators found. The schools often failed to properly evaluate students’ behavior and develop plans to prevent the sort of crises that often bring on restraints or seclusions, investigators found.

Furthermore, administrators and staff viewed school policies differently. The district’s director of special education, for instance, told investigators a student screaming threats was not enough to justify restrictive techniques like restraint or seclusion; staff, however, said screaming was disruptive enough to warrant using them.

As a result, the federal investigators found, the schools denied students a proper education. The school district has agreed to a corrective plan in which the district will re-evaluate every student who had been restrained or secluded more than twice over two years. The district will provide additional educational or other types of services to any students who need it.

Prince William County Schools spokesman Phil Kavits said that the district does not agree with everything in the investigators’ findings. He declined to offer specifics, and he said the district will make the changes requested.

“Our plan is to move forward by taking a look at a range of cases and ensure that we are indeed following the appropriate procedures,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure we are giving students the proper educational and therapeutic services.”

The boy at the center of the investigation settled his complaint with the school district and is receiving the services he needs, Reichhardt said.

Through a statement her lawyers translated, the mother of the boy said the decision will help other students who are mistreated—including those who neither speak English nor understand their rights. She said she was happy “knowing that other children will not have to go through what we did.”

Heather Vogell reports on schools for ProPublica. Previously, she reported on test cheating in public schools at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her work resulted in indictments of the superintendent and 34 others.

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