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In 2016, more than 120,000 students nationwide were restrained or secluded in school. The vast majority of those students had special needs, according to the most recently available data on school climate and safety.
Though there’s been much debate over definitions, restraint most often involves physically holding a child who is exhibiting serious behavior problems whereas seclusion involves isolating them. So, what are the effects of these practices? And when are they actually appropriate?
We dive into how local schools are dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. Plus, education experts join us to discuss tactics for de-escalating tough situations.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Kimmy Clark Autism Program Director, The Ivymount School
- Jenny Abamu Education Reporter, WAMU 88.5 @JennyAbamu
- Juliet Hiznay Founder, J.D. Hiznay, PLLC, a private law practice in Arlington, Virginia
- Brandi Simonsen Special Education Professor, University of Connecticut
Jenny Abamu's Reporting
Children Are Routinely Isolated In Some Fairfax County Schools. The District Didn't Report It. | WAMU
In one case, a single child was confined to a room almost 100 times in a school year.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. In 2016 more than 120,000 students were restrained or secluded in schools nationwide. The vast majority of those students were children with special needs. So what are the effects of these practices and when is seclusion or physical restraint the appropriate response for the safety of the student and those around him or her? Today we'll dive into how local schools deal with behavioral issues in the classroom and discuss tactics for de-escalating tough situations. We'd love to have you join the conversation. Joining me in studio is Jenny Abamu. She's WAMU's Education Reporter. Jenny, thank you so much for joining us.
JENNY ABAMUThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIJenny, we should lead off with your reporting on this topic. You should know that Jenny's story “Children Are Routinely Isolating In Some Fairfax County Public Schools The District Didn't Report” aired today on morning edition. You can find her reporting at wamu.org. Jenny, what did you find in Fairfax County?
ABAMUSo, Kojo, we were looking at data at first and we found that for years Fairfax County public schools reported to the federal government that no children were physically restrained or trapped in isolating spaces, which is known as seclusion. But documents that we obtained revealed hundreds of cases where children and like we said before there were some as young as six years old were repeatedly secluded or restrained. In some cases, we have children that were secluded up to 100 times in a single school year. Multiple parents said the constant seclusion was traumatizing for their kids.
NNAMDIWe did invite Fairfax County Public Schools to participate in this discussion. The school system declined, but gave us this fairly lengthy statement, "Fairfax County Public Schools is committed to ensuring that all school based personnel trained in the use of seclusion and restraint understand explicitly the appropriate use of seclusion and restraint to manage extremely challenging student behaviors in emergency situations along with the documentation requirements. We believe seclusion restraint in the management of severe student behavior is being used appropriately. Under FCPS guidelines, the practice is prohibited unless there's a dangerous situation and seclusion restraint is necessary to protect the student or another person or persons. FCPS is also committed to improving the documentation and reporting of seclusion restraint at the school level and in the data submitted to OCR." End of quote statement.
NNAMDIJenny Abamu, what are requirements for reporting in Fairfax County and what exactly does reporting entail? Are local schools just keeping documentation internally? Sharing numbers with the district, the state?
ABAMUSo in Fairfax County documentation of seclusion or restraint is mandatory. Schools are supposed to report if something happens. They're mandated to report if something happens. And it should be maintained in the students' folder. This is according to their guidelines. And also copies of the report should be sent to parents if students are involved. And then it should also be sent to the director of special education. So they should have documentation on how many students are secluded in their schools.
ABAMUAnd when he says OCR it means -- they mean the Office of Civil Rights, which is the federal government and the Department of Education's Branch. And they are also mandated to report there. And that's where we saw a very large discrepancy. Apparently they reported zero cases in several different years, all reported years actually. And we saw at least in 2016 and 2017 alone up to -- almost 2,000 cases.
NNAMDIYou should know we got an email from the President of the Fairfax County Council PTA who says, "Thankfully many students with disabilities have very positive educational experiences within our great system, but where there are problems we need to know about them and pursue remedies. One resource you can share with listeners is that in Fairfax County we have a new PTA devoted to serve students with disabilities and their families. It's the Special Education Parent Teacher Association or SEPTA for short. It's an independent PTA created especially for these families. Check it out at FairfaxCountySEPTA.org."
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Juliet Hiznay, Founder of J.D. Hiznay, PLLC, a private law practice in Arlington, Virginia. She helps families when navigating the special education process in public schools. Juliet, thank you so much for joining us.
JULIET HIZNAYThank you. I'm delighted to join you.
NNAMDII'd like to make sure we define these words right off the bat. What are we talking about when we use the terms seclusion and or restraint?
HIZNAYIt's a very important question. And actually one of the discrepancies that can happen and can occur is a failure to define these in a constant way. So first let's talk about restraint. There are three types of restraints that have been regulated in psychiatric and in schools settings. And those are chemical restraints, mechanical restraints, and physical restraints. The chemical restraints are pharmacological. Basically that's drugging someone to immobilize them.
HIZNAYA mechanical restraint, you would use some kind of device in order to restrain someone to prevent their mobility. It doesn't include a treatment or a support system. This would be if it's used to say, you're strapping a kid down in order to prevent them from moving. Not for their safety, not because they need that, but because you don't want them to move because it was inconvenient or for some other reason such as aggression. Also there's physical restraint, which would mean placing hands on a student in order to prevent their movement.
HIZNAYWhen we talk about seclusion that gets a little more complex, it is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as being prevented from moving an area and being placed in an isolated space away from other children. That could include even happening in the classroom setting. However, typically that would mean a removal from the classroom to another location. Seclusion itself is defined by some jurisdictions as only occurring when you are locked inside of a room that you cannot open from the interior. That is an extremely narrow definition, but it may account for some of the discrepancies in the data that we see. And that's one reason why having a unified definition of seclusion is so important for students.
NNAMDIJenny Abamu, so in effect, both terms seclusion and restraint can mean a range of things. How does the lack of clarity as to what these actually mean affect school district and statewide policy?
ABAMUWell, it really goes back to the reporting. How can you report on whether you've secluded or restrained someone if you don't really know what it means and if you don't have proper guidelines outlining when to report. So if you look across the region, reporting on this issue is really inconsistent. In D.C., Loudoun County, and Arlington numbers of seclusion and restraint are under 20 and that's really low. In Montgomery County there are over 1400 cases. And so there's a lot of discrepancy and I think that touches back on what Juliet was saying earlier is that the definitions don't allow you to understand, when you should report, how to report, etcetera. And that also leads to a lot of discrepancy and lack of understanding.
NNAMDIThis one both for you and Juliet, but I'll start with Juliet. From the families you've talked to and from your own observations, I'm wondering if you can speak to the effects of these practices of seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County in particular.
HIZNAYSo I can't speak specifically to any cases, because of confidentiality of clients. But I will say this. What I see generally in students, who are exposed repeatedly to restraint and seclusion in particularly with seclusion is that students will become traumatized by these experiences. And sometimes they will even exhibit the same types of symptoms that you see in a person, who is coming back from a conflict zone. Basically they're presenting with, you know, PTSD. And this can happen in children regardless of how old they are.
HIZNAYIt can happen with children who are elementary schools aged. There's a range of responses that children may have when they're placed in isolation. But consider, you know, for children I've seen this in children as young as six years of age, is they're placed alone. They can't get out. They don't know when it's going to end. Developmentally they may be delayed, and developmentally if you're age two, three, say, you're still in that range of age where, you know, family separation and your sense of time is not even fully established.
HIZNAYSo you will see behaviors like smearing of feces, urinating on the floor, stripping out of clothing. Things that are pretty extreme and highly evident of a very very upset individual, who has not -- is not seeing how they're going to get out or when they're going to get out. And then what can happen is they can continuously be triggered by these fears and these memories such that you see an escalation in behaviors once they've had that kind experience. They're really experiencing a loss of control, a total loss of control, self-determination, dignity. It's really heartbreaking.
ABAMUSo I did talk to quite a few parents and every parent, who I talked to was in tears about this topic, because they kept repeating over and over that their kids were traumatized by the repeated seclusions. And I think it's really important to kind of visualize this a little bit. And part of the kind of post-traumatic stress that some of the parents said that their kids started to exhibit.
ABAMUOne family they went, I guess, for Halloween and one Halloween place was a school and it was like a vision of -- it was like a recreation of a school. I guess a haunted house. And they said that the kid when he walked into that place, his hands got really clammy. He got really fearful. He had to leave immediately and he was shaking after being there. Even after -- because of the reminder of the seclusion and this haunted house also had like a teacher that was yelling and this kid crouched in the corner afraid. And so that is something that parents describe -- that was a story a parent told me that I didn't put into the story that we had this morning.
ABAMUAnd then, of course, also constant seclusion -- something that I heard was that it affected them negatively academically. I mean, if a kid -- some parents told me that their kids were given packets to work with in isolation and it's an elementary school kid. And so they saw their kids drop in academics. I heard this repeatedly too was that they increased in violence, which was like a response and they described it as kind of like being afraid. They were so afraid they'd become violent going to the room, violent coming out of the room, angry, frustrated. And they hated school. Everyone said they hated school afterwards.
NNAMDIOne of the parents you talked to in your report is Jennifer Tid and I think she joins us on the phone right now. Jennifer Tid, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFER TIDHello. Thank you for doing this story. This is really important to so many people.
NNAMDITell us about your son's situation.
TIDMy son -- in two different schools was secluded daily up to one to two -- a couple days three hours a day. His behaviors became worse and worse. And what Juliet described, he started defecating and urinating to get out of the seclusion room. His behaviors became much worse at home. Just all around he was just a completely different child. We had to drag him kicking and screaming to the bus.
TIDNow he's in a situation where they do not employ seclusion since last October. And his behaviors have improved dramatically whereas he would have five to seven severe behavior incidents a week when he had the threat of seclusion. He's now only had about five major behavior incidents since October 15th when he started the new school where there's no threat of seclusion.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd how is he doing now?
TIDHe's doing dramatically better. His behaviors both at school and at home with no threat of seclusion are miraculously better. I mean, he still has behaviors. He's a difficult child, but at home the difference -- there's a word that I come up with all the time, it is miraculous how much different. And the really the biggest change is that this facility uses no seclusion. So he has no threat of seclusion.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing your story with us and with Jenny Abamu. Juliet, your focus is serving families, who are navigating the special education process in public schools. How typical is Jennifer's story?
HIZNAYWell, I can't say for certain how typical it is because I don't have access to the full data. And, obviously, there are some issues with collection of data and reporting of data. What I can say is that I have been serving families in basically with a collaborative practice model since 2012. And over the course of that time there has been no time that I have not had a client that is presenting with this issue in my practice.
HIZNAYSometimes I've had multiple clients. And unfortunately most of those have been in Fairfax County Public Schools. I'm not going to say that Fairfax is the exclusive place. There's a 13 year old right now who's an activist out of Powhatan, who reportedly is asking for seclusion to be banned in Virginia. And, you know, this is something that affects children across the country and in all parts of Virginia.
NNAMDIWell, here's a story from Loudoun County from Alexa, Alexa in Ashburn, Virginia. Alexa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXAHi. I just wanted to call in and share my daughter, Gigi's story. She's been secluded and had some sort of restraint since 2010 in Loudoun County Public Schools. The photo that was released to the Washington Post was the first bit of proof that I was able to obtain -- I'm sorry I'm getting emotional --
NNAMDIIt's completely understandable.
ALEXA-- about the practices that the county allows. So I'm very proud of my friends, Zoe, Heidi, and Delegate Bell for trying to push some sort of legislation for the state of Virginia, because as of right now there's nothing to protect these children. They have no voices.
NNAMDIWe will be talking about legislation being introduced in the General Assembly in the Commonwealth of Virginia very shortly. But thank you very much, Alexa, for sharing your story with us. Jenny, what are the Department of Education requirements for reporting data on seclusion and restraint in schools? And do all schools follow those guidelines?
ABAMUSo the Department of Education mandates that all school districts do have to report this data now. And they say that they have a 99.6 percent reporting rate, which is pretty high. The thing is the quality of the data that they're receiving is debatable. They've tried to put in some quality measures to kind of make sure that people are reporting properly. Technically the superintendent is supposed to sign off on the data that's reported and that's one of their quality measures that they put in place.
ABAMUBut as we see in Fairfax County they've been reporting zero several years. And I mean, Fairfax is one of the biggest school districts in the United States. And so they are going through right now and starting to think of methodology to go back and deal with districts that have compliance issues. That's what I heard from officials there.
NNAMDIHow do the numbers on seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County compare to those of other local school districts?
ABAMUSo the numbers are kind of all over the place, but I did mention a few earlier. If you look at places like D.C., Arlington, Loudoun County, the numbers look like according to the data that's reported, very low. Loudoun County had reported 13 cases in 2015-2016. Arlington only reported 11 cases. D.C. reported like 14 cases I believe as well. But Montgomery County like I said before reported 1415 cases of seclusion and restraint.
NNAMDIWe'll talk more about that later, but is the fact that the definition of these terms is not clear a part of the problem?
ABAMUI think that's a part of the problem, but there are also a lot of caveats to that. And so part of it is the definition. Part of it is the requirements from the states and the districts. And then part of it is also just kind of thinking about who's doing the secluding and restraining. Some school districts have SROs, I mean, security resource officers who do restrain and seclude students. And sometimes they're not considered part of the school. And because of that, they don't record that. But that's happening frequently in schools. And so we also had to kind of think about who's doing it. There's just so many different things that play into why the numbers look the way they do.
NNAMDIAnd a lot of people are clearly concerned about this issue. We got an anonymous email who says, "My son was restrained repeatedly and has been hurt on more than one occasion in Fairfax County Public Schools. I asked for a restraint report and never got it. My son was five. I'd like something to be done. How can parents get together to change these policies?"
NNAMDIAnd Bria tweets, "Why is it that school systems seem to criminalize kids with behavioral or mental health issues by punishing them instead of truly helping them and putting their well-being first and front and center?" Well, we're going to take a short break. And when we come back we'll find out how one particular school is trying to deal with that issue. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the use of seclusion and restraint in school systems with Jenny Abamu. She's WAMU's Education Reporter. Juliet is the Founder of J.D. Hiznay, PLLC, a private law practice in Arlington, Virginia that helps families, who are navigating the special education process in public schools. And we're talking now with Kimmy Clark, who is the Autism Program Director at Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland. Kimmy, thank you so much for joining us.
KIMMY CLARKThank you, Kojo. I'm thrilled to be here.
NNAMDIYou work with children who have special needs at Ivymount School in Rockville. I'm wondering if you can talk about instances when these responses, seclusion or physical restraint are necessary for the safety of the student or those around the student or both and what that looks like at a school like Ivymount.
CLARKSure. I'm happy to. I think it helps to describe the program a bit. I work in the Autism Program. We have 74 students age five to 21. And these are all students who have been referred to us by the counties in which they live. So they have a history of not having a great educational background, not doing well in school, failing out repeatedly. And they've gotten to a point where the counties that they live in have funded a non-public placement meaning they're going to pay for their tuition and bus them to us.
CLARKSo we have a lot of kids, who display really severe forms of problem behavior. And what I mean by that is aggression that includes head butting somebody else, biting somebody else, pulling hair so hard that it could cause a concussion, kicking, punching that sort of thing. Not everybody, but we do have students who display these behaviors. Also severe forms of self injury, this might include hitting their head against a hard surface, biting themselves to the point that they are making marks in their skin that permanent, slamming their knees against their head, and again, these are things that we would consider severe.
CLARKWe have a variety of positive behavior supports in place when the kids enter our program. So we work really really hard to develop function based behavior plans that are individualized to the student, curriculum that's individualized to the student, and a really intensive staffing model. So each student gets almost one to one ratio instructions, sometimes two to one or very very small group.
CLARKSo their needs are met on a variety of levels upon walking in the door. That being said these kids may have a long history of engaging in some of these severe problem behaviors and we are going to encounter some of them even with all those positive behavior supports in place. And there are times that we are going to use restraint and seclusion to keep people safe, not only the students themselves, but the staff that are working with them.
NNAMDIYou do a lot of work training teachers in the Autism Program at Ivymount. Of course, not getting into a situation that has escalated is important, but not always possible. Can you describe what a teacher does when a student begins exhibiting dangerous behavior?
CLARKSure. For us restraint and seclusion are really last resort, they are really the last thing we want to use. We want to go through a whole litany of other kinds of responses first. So even though it's a last resort and the thing we use the least, we spend a fair amount of time training on how to use it appropriately. So everyone gets trained on what the state regulations are for use of restraint and seclusion, how to implement restraint. I am a physical restraint trainer for our program. So I personally train all of our staff on the safe use of restraint and the regulations surrounding the use of restraint and seclusion.
CLARKWe might practice. We may role play. I might be the student myself and practice a little bit of resistance so I can feel what it feels like when the staff are using restraints. And make sure that it's safe and ethical. And then on top of that we have program coordinators that are certified behavioral analysts that are going to spend time developing crisis plans, developing behavioral plans based on the student's specific functions.
CLARKIn other words, the reason that they're engaging these problem behaviors, and every classroom team member is trained to fluency on how to implement those plans.
NNAMDIWhat are the rules around seclusion and restraint at Ivymount? For example, how long can a student be in seclusion and what types of restraint are permitted?
CLARKSeclusion is limited at 30 minutes in the state of Maryland. So, you can't be in seclusion for more than 30 minutes. Now, that's a pretty long period of time, and it's rare. In fact, I can't remember the last time a student was in the seclusion room for that long. Typically, it's much shorter than that. We are releasing a student as soon as they are calm. So, we are speaking to the student through the door. We are monitoring them through a video monitor or through the window in the door, and we're going to open that door up as soon as that student is displaying somewhat safer behavior than what they were displaying previously.
CLARKAdditionally, if they were to begin engaging in self-injurious behavior in the seclusion room, we would immediately end that period of seclusion. We don't want any kid harming themselves when they're in the seclusion room. For restraints, we use a physical management package in the autism program. So, there are companies that will come and train your staff on how to use different -- a litany of restraints, and I am a trainer for that package. And we'll use anything from an escort, meaning restricting movement of a student's arms maybe while we walk them to a space we want them to be that's safer.
CLARKWe might use standing restraints, where one or two person might limit the movement of a student's arms while they're standing. We might do seated restraints while a person, a student is seated on the floor and people are limiting the movement of their arms and legs. And we also use supine restraints, where a student is laying on their back, and we are limiting the movement of their arms and legs.
NNAMDIJenny, hearing Kimmy's description of Ivymount, which is a private school, I'm wondering how different this looks in public schools with far fewer resources. Can these practices be implemented successfully in a classroom that doesn't have, as Kimmy was explaining, a one-to-one ratio?
ABAMUYeah, Kojo, that's a really good point. I'm hearing some school districts are already trying to do some things differently, but it is tough to do. I've heard from professors at the University of Connecticut who are working on developing different types of methodologies. They call it positive behavior interventions and supports -- or PBIS -- and schools are picking up on it. It is a framework that is -- it's not an intervention. It's a framework that's designed to help school leaders come up with their own protocols, so they're able to think of more positive ways to enforce behavior.
ABAMUBut, at the same time, even in districts like Montgomery County, where they're trying to also implement some of this behavior framework, their numbers of seclusion and restraint have gone up over the last few years. So, I do think that it is a hard thing to do, and it's not really clear if there's a perfect answer as to how do you manage students who have difficult behaviors when you have very limited resources, and it really does take quite some time to kind of get teachers trained up on it.
ABAMUEveryone says -- at least people I talk to -- say training is really important, and I think that that might be something worth investing in for the teachers that are there.
NNAMDIHere's Diane's story from Reston, Virginia. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEHi, Kojo. I'm Diane Cooper Gould, and I'm actually the president of the Fairfax County Special Education PTA, which was mentioned at the top of your program. And I actually have two children in special education. One of them is on the autism spectrum. And I can just say I have heard, as president of our organization, first, I welcome any of your listeners to reach out to us, and I also have heard so many stories from parents of restraint and seclusion in Fairfax, and I am extremely concerned.
DIANEI think that we have a good relationship with Fairfax County, our organization, but I am extremely concerned about the use of restraint and seclusion and the loopholes that are being used to avoid reporting incidents of restraint and seclusion. So, for example, I believe it was mentioned earlier, we have been told that parents have been told that it does not count as restraint and seclusion unless the door is locked. So, even if a child is in a restraint and seclusion room -- which, to be clear, they're usually the size of a small broom closet, and they're cinderblock with maybe a chair in them. If a teacher is standing outside the door with their hand on the doorknob and the child cannot escape, they're still being told that that does not qualify, because the door is not physically locked, even though the door is locked.
DIANE...I think you can see how there's lots of language loopholes that prevent these things from being reported, and they're not even being reported to parents. And that's really scary for parents and creates a fundamental lack of trust.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much.
DIANESo, yeah, sure.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, because Juliet Hiznay, you wanted to talk about the fact that there are seclusion rooms of the type that Diane has just described in Fairfax County public schools.
HIZNAYYes, I do. I think that, you know, looking at my practice across Northern Virginia, I have been surprised at how little seclusion comes up in some jurisdictions. For example, in Arlington, I haven't had a single seclusion incident that has been referred to me to work with a family. By contrast, in Fairfax, I get referrals quite frequently about this issue.
HIZNAYNot all of them are cases that I can handle, but the seclusion rooms in Fairfax are literally built into their program, and that is really concerning to me. I think that it creates a situation where people are relying on them unjustifiably. So, if you have a teacher that is not trained or is not good at preventing escalation in the first instance, or deescalating within the classroom, or is not taking advantage of those techniques, then what you end up with is a reliance on these rooms that are literally built into their programs, particularly the comprehensive services sites programs.
HIZNAYI also recently was at a school, Burke School, and toured it and counted seven seclusion rooms in that school. So, this is a widespread issue, and I believe that this 13-year-old activist in Powhatan is onto something. We need to be banning seclusion in public schools altogether, and not have these rooms.
NNAMDIKimmy Clark, why is it important to report instances of seclusion or restraint, and what does that reporting look like?
CLARKFor us, we report not only to the county that funds the student -- so there's a placement specialist assigned to each student from the county. So, we report to them when we use those, either seclusion or restraint. Additionally, we report to the parent the same day, by phone or by writing. Some counties have different specifications about how that's done and which way, but we make sure that parents know every day, as soon as it happens and the number of times it happens and for how long it lasts.
CLARKSo, that's important in terms of transparency and making sure that we're on the same page and that parents know what's happening with their kids in schools.
NNAMDIHow do parents respond when they hear these reports?
CLARKIt's rare that a parent is surprised, because we're usually bringing them along, from the beginning. When a student starts, if they're engaging in behavior that's dangerous, we may talk about the potential need for restraint and seclusion. I've even had parents ask me to restrain them, so they could feel what it's like, and I'm happy to do that. And we've talked about it for a while, typically before we've had to do it.
CLARKThat doesn't mean there hasn't been emergency situations in which we've had to use restraint and then later report to the parent that day that it happened. But, generally, like I said, they've had a history of pretty severe problem behavior in the counties, and aren't terribly surprised when they hear that we're using it at school.
NNAMDIJenny, you mentioned this earlier, the very high numbers of seclusion and restraint reported in Montgomery County. That, oddly, might be a good thing. Can you explain?
ABAMUYes, I will. But before I get to that, I just want to touch on one thing Kimmy did say. I did hear from some parents, like, they were okay with their children being secluded or restrained sometimes, if it didn't become a routine or a regular practice. So, I did just want to say that. I did hear that from some parents, since Kimmy did mention.
ABAMUBut, yes, going back to Montgomery County, when I looked at the region I saw low numbers everywhere, and I did see high numbers in Montgomery County. And at first, I was -- I thought that was concerning, and I thought my focus of my reporting should have been there. (laugh) And so I did go and meet with district officials from the county, and they walked me through the data.
ABAMUI sat with seven different, five to seven officials, and they walked me through the data. They walked me through their practice of what they did, and multiple things stuck out to me. One was that they were trying to report everything. So, this is what they mentioned, even if it was, like, holding your hand and taking you somewhere, or if it was grabbing you or having to hold you. And so they made a point that they were trying to have fidelity in their reporting.
ABAMUAnd then they also mentioned that they were implementing a new strategy this year to try and deescalate situations, figure out ways to work with student behaviors, and kind of like this preventative type of measure that they were trying to implement. And they also said that they're not calling the police on kids, which I thought was interesting.
ABAMUI heard from some of the parents in Montgomery County that what people have said to them is, hey, if I can't seclude and restrain your kid, I'm going to call the police on them every time they act out. And they, Montgomery County, officials also said this is something that we don't practice. We don't call police on kids. We take care of it ourselves, and that's part of the reason why our numbers are higher.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will focus on the preventive aspects of this issue. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on seclusion and restraint in schools. We got a tweet from Advocates for Justice and Education, a DC non-profit: When we heard that the Kojo Show was about restraint and seclusion, we looked at our intake dates since October 1st, 2018. We have completed almost 200 intakes, and seven of them involve restraint, seclusion in some fashion. So, how do you prevent this? Joining us now from studios at the University of Connecticut is Brandi Simonsen.
NNAMDIBrandi Simonsen is a special education professor and research scientist at the University of Connecticut. Brandi Simonsen, thank you for joining us.
BRANDI SIMONSENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou've been doing research on the prevention side of things, steps that both teachers and students can take to deescalate a serious situation. Can you tell us more about positive behavioral interventions and supports, known as PBIS?
SIMONSENSure, I would be happy to. So, I think Kimmy actually did a really nice job of helping to kind of frame the issue of when crisis situations happen and the need for prevention. And so I just wanted to kind of make two big points, and a little bit, it's going to echo things she showed in the case study of her school.
SIMONSENSo, the first one is that restraint and seclusion are only ever appropriate in a crisis situation. And so, as you pointed out, kind of our goal should then be to prevent those crisis situations, because once you're in one, your good choices have kind of run out. You're either looking to deescalate, hopefully, or you do end up in a situation where restraint or seclusion could become necessary to prevent harm.
SIMONSENAnd just to be completely clear, that means those crisis interventions should never be part of a routine student plan. They should never be used as a consequent strategy for problem behavior. So, to your question around prevention, I think that there's a really clear need for kind of a tiered system of prevention, which, as you mentioned, is the framework that we call positive behavioral interventions and supports.
SIMONSENAnd so PBIS is a really nice way to organize evidence-based practices in schools. We think about those supports that all students need to be successful. So, things like having a really well-managed classroom and having a school environment that's positive and proactive. So, you see examples of that in schools that have positive expectations for students take time to teach explicitly the social and emotional skills that will set students up for success, and think about providing specific feedback, especially positive feedback, for students on their behavior.
SIMONSENAnd those interventions, while they're helpful for all students, they kind of serve as a protective factor for students that can escalate and have the more intense behaviors that we've been talking about on your show today. So, that universal level of intervention is the kind of necessary, but not sufficient for kids with really intensive behavioral histories. And so for those students, Kimmy also echoed the need for having a good understanding of student behavior and the importance of function-based support.
SIMONSENSo, in that sense, we think about behavior -- whether it's appropriate or really violent behavior -- as a means of communication. So, kids are usually using their behavior to say they want to get access to something, or that they want to get away from something, to escape or avoid it. And once we can understand behavior as a form of communication, we can develop really nice, individualized interventions that teach the students skills to make those really significant behaviors less likely to happen. And by doing that, we prevent the escalations that can lead to restraint and seclusion.
NNAMDIHow many schools are using the PBIS framework, and what effects have you seen from that approach, PBIS?
SIMONSENSo, right now, as part of the National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS -- which I co-direct with colleagues across a couple of other institutions -- we have seen really nice outcomes demonstrated through rigorous research. So, PBIS, kind of at that tier-one universal level that I started talking about, is associated with increases in academic performance, increases in social and emotional competence.
SIMONSENWe see fewer instances of student-reported dangerous behaviors, including things like drug abuse, alcohol abuse, fewer bullying behaviors reported. We also see things getting better for staff. So, staff report more positive climates. They report more healthy organizations. They enjoy working in settings a little bit more. And on the kind of reactive side, we schools relying less on procedures like office referral, suspensions, and expulsions.
SIMONSENRight now, we don't have really good rigorous research on restraint and seclusion. We do have some case studies, kind of as Kimmy presented in her example, where we have individual schools similar to hers who have used PBIS in that intensive setting. And in those case studies, we do have examples where restraint or seclusion have been reduced.
NNAMDIHere now, from Fairfax County, is John. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi. I just wanted to mention your two guests have talked about the PBIS system, as well as function-based support, and there are specialized programs within Fairfax County that do the exact same thing. So, I don't think it's fair to misrepresent some of the cases that have been reported on with labeling Fairfax County as one of the places that are not using these functional supports, or functional-based plans and behavior support systems.
JOHNThere are absolutely specialized departments that go out and train school staff, administrators and everything else, on these. So, I just don't -- there seems to be a lot of talk of who is doing things right and who is doing things wrong, and I want to make sure that we understand that Fairfax has these things in place, but Fairfax is also the tenth-largest school system in the United States. And that, in and of itself, creates challenges, as far as training in those things. So, because there was a couple of bad actors or potential systems that did not work doesn't necessarily represent the entirety of that specific district.
NNAMDITo which you say, Juliet Hiznay, what?
HIZNAYWell, implementation is key, and if we do not have the training in place for the teachers or if the teachers are not implementing it, then that's not going to work. You can say that you're using PBIS, but that doesn't mean that it's actually filtering down to the school level effectively, consistently. And I think that's really the issue, is consistently.
HIZNAYYou know, if I have to help extract a child from one school and trying to get them placed in another school, you can be certain that I will be looking to make sure that that receiving school is doing a good job of PBIS, and that there's some indicator of that.
NNAMDIAnd Jenny Abamu, the caller suggests that what you're reporting on is a few bad actors.
ABAMUI think it is hard to say exactly how many students are affected by this, how broad or how wide the scope is. And that's partially because of the misreporting that's happening in the district. I think that -- and that might be on the district, to kind of figure out how they're reporting their data. There are some parents that I talked to that said they didn't receive documentation when their kids were secluded or restrained.
ABAMUThat is part of Fairfax County's guidelines. So, that's up to -- they're obviously not even getting into PBIS, the basic guidelines that they're supposed to follow for seclusion and restraint seem to have some issues, because parents are saying they're not receiving documentation. Guidelines say this is supposed to happen this way. Guidelines say it's not supposed to be a first resort. It's a last resort.
ABAMUFamilies are saying their kids are secluded over 100 times in the school year, and some families actually have documentation for the hundreds of times their kids were secluded. And so I think that even if you're saying there's PBIS or you're saying that there are guidelines here, you have to look back and see -- look at the evidence before you and see what's happening in these cases.
NNAMDIYou mentioned in your reporting that federal and state legislatures are looking to regulate the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools. Let's talk first about the bill in Virginia. What will it require?
ABAMUSo, interesting, the bill in Virginia is actually the caller before, I forgot her name, but with the daughter named Gigi.
ABAMUYes, Gigi's Bill. And so that bill is supposed to go forward soon. It's passed the House, passed the Senate. It's waiting for Governor Northam's signature. The bill would limited the use of seclusion and restraint, and it would also implement some reporting requirements, which should be, for each incident, making sure that it's documented, mandating documentation that would be given to parents, and also to school officials. But the bill does not require them to document and report to the state.
ABAMUVirginia's Board of Education is holding a public hearing on the use seclusion and restraint on March 21st, which would be interesting to see if people talk about the bill and have other public comments about what's going on.
NNAMDIZoe in Arlington, Virginia. Is this the bill you're working on, Zoe?
ZOEHi, yes. Thank you very much for discussing this today, and I appreciate everybody's input. I would also like to echo the gentleman earlier's comments, that I think it's very easy in these situations for us to forget that there are some exemplary special education teachers out there who share the concerns that we have as parents in how our special needs children are treated.
NNAMDIBut you are all for the bill.
ZOEYes. I mean, I worked with Delegate Reid and Delegate Bell, and initially Senator Wexton, and then was able to work with Senator Boysko.
NNAMDII say that only because we are running short of time, Zoe. So, thank you very much for your call. because we'd like to talk about what's going on at the national level, Jenny Abamu. Democrats in Congress would like to take these regulations a step farther. What are they proposing?
ABAMUSo, Democrats in Congress are proposing that they make seclusion in public schools completely illegal and severely limit the use of restraints. Now, Republicans did voice concerns about that, saying that, you know, a one-size-fits-all mandate for the country is not the direction they want to go. And so there was some debate on Capitol Hill last month about what is the best methods.
ABAMUI think that one thing that they both agree on is that there needs to be more training for teachers. So, there may be something in that, and they're also talking about adding grant funding from the federal government to train teachers for other behavior preventative measures that might help, you know, Fairfax County and the teachers that really do want to -- don't want to seclude or restrain or don't want to have, you know, tough interactions with students every day.
NNAMDIKimmy, I'm wondering what your response is to the spending legislation.
CLARKI think there needs to be a light shined on some of the misrepresentation we're supporting that's being reported about. But I do have to say if we were in a situation in which we couldn't use seclusion or restraint was severely restricted, there might be kids that we couldn't serve and have in schools, and that might be problematic for us.
CLARKYou know, we have students who have long histories of severe problem behavior. We're trying really, really hard to reduce those problem behaviors. We're collecting careful data on how often we're using some of these restrictive responses to problem behavior. But if we couldn't use seclusion and restraint unilaterally, there may be kids that wouldn't be able to go to school, and that would a real shame.
HIZNAYWell, I just want to say that the bill talks about public schools, and Kimmy's schools is a private school. And her staff is going to be far more trained and able to implement these methodologies consistently in ways that do not harm children. As far as the bill that Representative Beyer put forward, I would support it wholeheartedly. And my sense is that what's happening with children is they are having these methodologies used on them in schools in inappropriate circumstances, with teachers who have inadequate training, and it is damaging them.
HIZNAYThat is one of the reasons why they're requiring more restrictive environments, i.e., they're requiring a private day school, partly because of the use of these methods.
NNAMDIAnd we haven't talked a lot about Washington D.C.'s public schools, but here's Molly, in Washington. Molly, your turn. You only have about a minute, Molly.
MOLLYI'll be fast. I think it really does get down that reporting element. If we don't know what's happening we don't know how -- even for the learning experience. D.C., right now, the policy they have is only for students being served in non-public special education schools like Ivymount. They don't have policies about reporting or regulations for their D.C. charters and their DCPS schools. And the reason why some of the reporting is important is exactly what Kimmy was saying, is we're also learning from that.
MOLLYWe're trying to deescalate. We're trying to see what is the antecedent to maybe some of the need for seclusion, so you can start working towards that. So, if we're not reporting, we're not really able to, you know, kind of have the teachers and the students and the families learn from the need to do restraint and seclusion, sometimes.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's just about all the time we have. Jenny Abamu is WAMU's education reporter. Jenny, thank you for joining us.
ABAMUThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJuliet Hiznay is the founder of J.D. Hiznay PLLC, a private law practice in Arlington, Virginia. She helps families who are navigating the special education process in public schools. Juliet, thank you for joining us.
HIZNAYThank you so much for inviting me.
NNAMDIBrandi Simonsen is a special education professor and research scientist at the University of Connecticut. Brandi, thank you for joining us.
SIMONSENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Kimmy Clark is the autism program director at Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland. Kimmy Clark, thank you for joining us.
CLARKThank you so much. Enjoyed being here.
NNAMDIEnough time left to read this e-mail from Susan, who says: I'm a retired teacher and taught middle school at the end of my career. This was in a small town in rural Michigan. Our most effective program was an intensive school within a school. Students had to earn their way back into the general school population. What was interesting was that some students wanted to stay there. They felt safe and functioned better in what was essentially a one-room schoolhouse on the edge of the school property.
NNAMDIWell, as I said, we're just about out of time, so that's going to be for another conversation, entirely. Today's conversation about seclusion and restraint at local schools was produced by Julie Depenbrock. You can listen to reporter Jenny Abamu's reporting on the topic at WAMU.org.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we'll check in with students who are walking out of class to rally for action on gun violence. Plus, we'll dive into the subsidies that Arlington County is offering Amazon and take a look at how the company will shape our region or the next 15 years. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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