Watchdogs criticize lack of state oversight of restraints and seclusions in schools

Children with special education needs were injured in 840 instances as they were being physically restrained or secluded during the 2011-12 school year. The numbers, from the State Department of Education, mean that a child is injured during one of every 25 incidents of emergency physical restraint or seclusion.

And Connecticut’s advocates for children and those with disabilities report that the state is failing to monitor and curb these practices.

The findings by the Office of the Child Advocate and Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities follow a yearlong investigation into the state’s role in the “scream rooms” at an elementary school in Middletown.

“What happened at Farm Hill Elementary School reflects a system’s failure -– a failure to adequately monitor, support and assist,” reports James McGaughey and Jamey Bell, leaders of the state’s two watchdog agencies.

During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were more than 37,000 instances in the state’s public schools where children with special education needs were restrained or secluded. 

“Schools are supposed to be places of safety and learning, not places where children can be placed into a ‘scream room’ if they become upset… Schools should not be places where adults can put hands on a child and hold her down, or force a child into a small room and then hold the door shut while he cries uncontrollably and bangs on the walls,” the watchdogs report.

State legislators last year responded to the outcry from parents and child advocates about “scream rooms” in the Middletown school by passing a law that requires the State Department of Education to collect and report annually the use of these practices statewide to better understand their use.

In the department’s first report, released this summer, state education officials concluded their data collection was “insufficient to draw any meaningful conclusions.” The department promised next year’s report would “allow for a critical examination of the use of emergency restraint and seclusion.”

Meanwhile, the state’s watchdogs reported this week that they are not convinced that the missteps in Middletown are isolated incidents of officials inappropriately restraining and secluding students.

“It is reasonable to believe that Middletown is not the only local school district in Connecticut utilizing seclusion as a behavior management technique and that problems similar to those that surfaced through the Farm Hill School investigation may exist elsewhere,” they report.

No one was available Thursday at the State Department of Education to talk about what is being done to better track the use of restraints and seclusion in schools in Connecticut. In a statement, the spokeswoman for the department said officials take this issue seriously.

“While our responsibility is, in part, to ensure that the use of restraint and seclusion is in compliance with state law when complaints are filed, the Department takes a pro-active role in promoting the use of proven preventions and appropriate interventions to de-escalate behaviors before they lead to an emergency situation,” Kelly Donnelly said. 

She added that the department has hosted six training session for local educators and is “leading the effort to collection actionable data.”

In Middletown, where one student was injured seriously enough to need an ambulance, the watchdogs found out after subpoenaing records from the school that several state laws were not followed when students were being secluded or restrained.

Parents or guardians were not notified after several students had been secluded; there was no proof that staff had been trained appropriately; and there was not sufficient documentation of these incidents. All of these are required by state law, the watchdog agencies report. McGaughey told legislators last year that a statewide survey of parents of special education students found that parents are notified 85 percent of the time that their child was restrained or secluded while at school.

Almost all of the children that were secluded in Middletown had “significant involvement” previously with the Department of Children and Families, which handles cases of children being abused and/or neglected.

“Despite DCF’s responsibility as the lead state agency for children’s mental health, there was no documented inquiry into why such young children became so emotionally dysregulated and out of control in their classroom setting,” the watchdogs found. “The DCF investigation demonstrated limited execution of its responsibilities.”

But a spokesman for the child welfare agency said that it was impossible for DCF officials to determine what went wrong and to improve the situation because the school had refused to release the names of the students.

“It’s rather impossible to respond to children if you don’t know who they are,” said Gary Kleeblatt. “We had difficulty responding to individual kids because they would not identify them to us.”

The child welfare agency has faced a major barrier up until this year in getting educational records of children in its custody because of federal privacy laws. However, that law was changed earlier this year so that the educational records of some students can be shared with DCF.

With 37,063 instances of children with special education needs being restrained during the 2011-12 school year — of which eight resulted in the child being seriously injured — the child advocates report that the state education department and welfare agency need to “erase the boundaries that separate mental health treatment from educational needs.”

The education department does not track these practices for students who don’t have special education needs, so the number reported is likely higher. Several of the students who were secluded or restrained in Middletown were not considered special education students.

The state “has the responsibility and the authority to make resources available to assist school districts in reducing and eliminating archaic and harmful practices of behavior control, and in promoting positive behavioral supports among school staff,” said the watchdogs.

The U.S. Department of Education last year offered guidance for school leaders to cut down on these practices.

“Ultimately, the standard for educators should be the same standard that parents use for their own children,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “There is a difference between a brief time out in the corner of a classroom to help a child calm down and locking a child in an isolated room for hours. This really comes down to common sense.”

State education department numbers show that in the 2011-12 school year, the Capitol Region Education Council physically restrained or secluded children in 4,263 incidents, more than those in any other district. See school-by-school rates here from 2009, the most recent year available.

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