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Seclusion And Restraint In Our Schools

Sarah Cody takes a look at the controversial practices of seclusion and restraint in Connecticut’s schools.

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“My son is very OCD, non-verbal autistic, understands everything you say,” says Jane Stango of Watertown, remembering how her son would bang his head against a faucet when he became extremely agitated at the River Street School in Windsor, a Capitol Region Education Council school for students with developmental disabilities. “Putting him in the ‘seclusion room’ there, which he was very comfortable with, allowed him to get rid of his OCD without hurting himself.” Stango believes “seclusion” can be effective for some children at specialized schools with highly trained professionals, but there is a new push to reduce use of this practice in schools, across the board.

“In all cases, it’s about ‘how do we prevent it.’ Nobody wants to seclude a child, nobody wants to restrain a child” says CREC’s Director of Student Services, Deborah Richards. “But when you have students who have such significant challenges, the question is: What interventions do we have to put into place to prevent that from happening?” Both “restraint” and “seclusion” are legal in Connecticut, as emergency responses when a student poses a risk to himself or others, or when “seclusion” is built into a parent-approved Individualized Education Plan. A recent state report shows the majority of children who experience “seclusions”, sometimes over an hour long, have autism, and related disorders. Many of these kids are young, in kindergarten or first grade. Parents, politicians and advocates expressed outrage and called for change at a recent forum in Hartford aimed at prevention of these techniques.

Watch Sarah’s interview with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.

“We always have someone either in the room processing with the student or someone watching the student every second they’re in some kind of isolation,” says Richards, explaining why CREC’s numbers, 3860 seclusions in the 2012-13 report, are high. She says they reflect precise, computerized tracking of students who could not succeed in their local classrooms. The overall numbers of restraint and seclusion, collected from about 250 schools, is “self-reported”. The accuracy of all data has been questioned by the state’s Child Advocate Sarah Eagan. “If it’s not as common at a public school, it’s not on everybody’s radar screen. So, I think you’ll see vast differences from school to school,” says Richards, noting that CREC’s psychologists and behavior analysts are highly trained for these extreme behavior interventions. “There are districts who clearly have that expertise but there are districts that don’t. “

Stango was notified every time Chris, now 22 and living in a group home, was put in seclusion. She even witnessed his experience there and didn’t see a stark, scary image of a “scream room” but, rather, a padded space with a sensory wall. “Let’s face it, you have someone behind a door and it’s like they’re in a cage, but for him, it’s where he needed to be at that time,” she says. “It all depends on the school and the training. That’s it.”

Before 2012, many of us had never heard of a “Scream Room” but the controversy in Middletown, propelled by allegations that a Farm Hill Elementary School student was put in a small room used to discipline children for misbehaving, put a local spotlight on an issue talked-about nationwide. By law, the use of seclusion in schools is supposed to be a “last resort” technique, used only when a child poses a threat to himself or others. When given a close look, the practice is complex and, sometimes, subjective. What is the definition of threat? Is the use of seclusion, as a way to calm a child down in a safe environment, more appropriate at special schools than public institutions? There is a new push for developing a better framework.

Watch Sarah’s interview with James McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities.

“What the research tells us is that there’s no evidence to support the conclusion that restraint and seclusion of children is an effective intervention to change or manage their behavior,” says the state’s Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, whose office recently presented a forum, with the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, called “Prevention of Restraint and Seclusion in CT’s Schools: Putting Principles Into Practice”, attended by parents, doctors and politicians. “Placing a child, particularly a child with a developmental disability…into a room that he can’t come out of can be traumatizing.” A just-released report of the 2012-13 school year by the State Department of Education shows 33,000 instances of restraint or seclusion, most often involving kids with autism, sometimes pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. “Where we want to start is a drastic reduction in the numbers,” says Eagan.

Click here to read the 2012-13 report on seclusion and restraint in Connecticut schools.

Click here to read the 2011-12 report on seclusion and restraint in Connecticut schools.

“We need help…we need people who understand the multiple disabilities,” says Richard Espinosa, who attended the forum, and claims his son, Benjamin, was manually placed in a “time-out room” at the New Britain Transition Center, a special education program. “Benjamin has over 15 surgeries from his hip down and he’s very sensitive with his joints, so the idea of having an adult physically control him is scary.” The 12-year-old has cerebral palsy, eye deficiencies and behavior problems. Espinosa was told his son waved his crutch at teachers but wonders if they truly exhausted all avenues of resolution. He has taken his child out of school. Dr. E. Ann Carabillo, the director of Pupil Services for the New Britain Board of Education, would not address Espinosa’s accusations directly due to confidentiality, but says: “We approach each child and family individually. We work together to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.”

“Lots of people are trying their best to work with kids who have complex needs,” says Eagan, who believes legal reform is necessary to tighten guidelines and reduce instances of restraint and seclusion. “Our goal is not to put a black hat on schools but to say…’we’re in this together…to bring the best expertise we have to…make our schools richly resourced to work with kids and families so that everybody’s achieving in a safe way.’”

Next Monday, this special series continues in the Courant and on Fox CT. Hear from parents and experts who believe seclusion rooms can be effective, when used properly.