Districts that treat students with emotional disabilities with a “one-size-fits-all” behavioral approach across the system must change their policies, according to federal findings in a case against the Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia.
Angela Ciolfi, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program, and two other attorneys filed a complaint in November of 2012 with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education.
The complaint stated that two schools, named Positive Attitude and Commitment to Education (PACE) East and West, for students with emotional disabilities discriminated against some students “through improper restraint and seclusion” from 2011 to 2013, according to OCR. And in essence, denied them “free appropriate education.”
Such action has a “disparate impact on black and Hispanic students because they are disproportionately represented [in PACE East and West] compared to the rest of the district,” it states.
Restraining and secluding students who misbehave is not unusual in schools. But Prince William County had a systemic problem in that almost none of the students had a specific behavior plan that addressed their issues, Ciolfi says, and a one-size-fits-all approach was used.
“I think the consensus is that restraint and seclusion should never be used on a regular basis as a way to discipline children or respond to misbehavior,” Ciolfi says. “And this opinion is a must-read for educators and parents” from which to learn.
The complaint stems from school personnel sending students who’ve acted out to “re-orientation areas.” After disrupting class, not following directions or failing to complete work, students could go to these unlocked rooms voluntarily or be sent by teachers to calm down. Students could spend 10 minutes to several hours there. Students could use it as downtime or to receive counseling.
In more severe cases, students in the re-orientation areas were put in seclusion rooms where they also may have been physically restrained or locked behind a closed door until they calmed down. Students were placed in “face-down or prone restraints” and standing restraints or physically escorted to re-orientation areas.
In the investigation that followed the complaint, district personnel demonstrated to OCR staff the face-down restraints, showing they did not constrain a student’s chest or make it hard to breath, says the letter of findings.
In one school, an average of 65 students—half of the student body—was placed in re-orientation each month in 2012-13. In the other school, 31 students were restrained or secluded 154 times during the 2012-13 year, the findings state. But the OCR found no evidence that any student was physically harmed.
Ciolfi says the problem is three-fold: “I think the face-down restraints being used can cause an unnecessary risk of harm,” Ciolfi says. “Secondly, I think there is serious psychological impact when the adults these students are supposed to trust in their lives are physically manhandling them in a way that’s very adversarial.
“And finally, the need to use restraint and seclusion so frequently is a real red flag that the educational program is not working,” she adds. “So they need to re-evaluate the placement, support and interventions at these schools that are supposed to specialize in students with behavioral and emotional challenges.”
The resolution agreement, which Superintendent Steven Walts signed in July, requires the district to re-evaluate whether certain behavioral interventions are meeting each students’ educational needs.
The district is developing a plan to provide instruction for students who may need to be removed from classrooms for behavioral reasons.
While many other districts do not seclude students, the practices continue in many others, says Douglas Gagnon, a research assistant at University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, which recently studied the issue and wrote a report.
“It left us wondering why some districts turned to the practices while others didn’t,” he says, “and what the full range of implications may be for those that use restraint and seclusion instead of turning to alternative means.”
The other two attorneys who originally filed the complaint with Ciolfi, including William Reichhardt and Alan W.H. Gourley, and the district’s legal counsel, James E. Fagan, could not immediately be reached for comment.