Advocates, schools seek more oversight on restraint and seclusion

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, March 23, 2014

MILTON—A Milton School District report reveals the district used physical force to calm a student or placed a student in seclusion a total of 85 times in the 2012-2013 school year.

In the same report, the district's Harmony Elementary School reported it restrained or secluded one student 27 times during the school year.

The report, which was submitted to the school board last fall under rules of a state law passed in 2012, characterized the Harmony School student as having a disability. The student is one of about 360 students the district says has a designated cognitive, physical or behavioral disability.

What the report doesn't detail is how many physical measures used on the Harmony School student or other students were restraint holds—physical maneuvers that trained staff are allowed to use on students when their actions pose a danger to themselves or others—and how often the schools placed students in the school's padded seclusion room, another measure that staff are allowed to use when a student has a potentially dangerous physical or emotional outburst.

Full reports detailing every use of seclusion and restraint are supposed to be kept on file in school districts, but they're only shared with school staff, administration and parents. Unless a parent or advocate files a complaint with the state on the use of physical measures on a student, officials say, schools aren't required to submit individual reports to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities, filed an open records request with every school district in Wisconsin for annual reports on seclusion and restraint. The group has learned that some medium-sized school districts used seclusion and restraint as often as 3,000 times in 2012-2013.

The 2012-2013 school year is the first for which the state required districts to report numbers to school boards.

This month, Milton School District Principal Jeanne Smith went on a paid leave for the rest of the school year after Janesville police investigated reports she stepped on a second-grade autistic boy's ankles and knee and shouted at him while he was in a small seclusion room at Harmony School on Feb. 18. Smith told police she was trying to “peak” a tantrum the boy was having at the time, according to reports.

The boy apparently was uninjured, and police found Smith committed no criminal wrongdoing. In cases of school seclusion and restraint, criminal investigations seldom result in criminal charges, advocates say.

In other states, seclusion and restraint in schools have come under fire by parents and advocacy groups.

There have been a handful of cases in the last several years of students being injured or dying from improperly administered seclusion holds and other instances of students being placed in seclusion rooms dozens of times a month, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Reporting, oversight

Sally Flaschberger, an advocacy specialist for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said her group is pushing for the state DPI to be given more direct oversight of seclusion and restraints at schools.

The group is trying to get changes to a state law, Wisconsin Act 125, which requires schools to submit a report to district administration and notify parents within two days after any use of seclusion and restraint.

Act 125 is the same law that requires an annual report of seclusion and restraint to school boards. Those are the reports Flaschberger's group sought.

Because 2012-2013 is the first year the law required annual reports, the level of detail, methods of reporting and the raw numbers range widely from school district to school district, Flaschberger said.

She said many small districts reported using seclusion and restraints 100 or more times last year. She said even if the methods were proper, she considers the frequency of their use a red flag.

“Until the (school) districts had to gather all of this information, some of them had no real idea. We did see some of the districts report that they would change their policies or even decrease those numbers (of seclusion and restraint),” Flaschberger said.

Some districts, Flaschberger said, haven't responded to her group's open records request.

“The reporting we've seen is all over the map. There's no rhyme or reason. We've got information, but it's incomplete, and there's no prior data to compare it to,” she said. “We have a lot of school districts, a hundred of them, that reported they used zero restraints. That's hard for us to believe. We're concerned they may be under-reporting.”

Flaschberger said the Janesville School District's report didn't break down its use of seclusion and restraint by school, a detail state law requires. And Milton's report lumps together use of both seclusion and restraint, instead of itemizing the two separately, which state law requires.

Flaschberger said more oversight, either through a law change requiring schools to submit to the DPI all school-level reports on use of seclusion and restraint—or at least the annual reports school boards now see—could allow the state to investigate troubling trends, such as potential overuse of seclusion rooms.

The DPI's Special Education team did not respond to multiple inquiries by The Gazette on state seclusion and restraint policies.

Milton school officials say they're now seeking to use fewer seclusion and physical restraint measures on students, focusing instead on more training to “de-escalate” student outbursts and use “positive” behavior modification in place of physical restraint as often as possible.

Special Education Director Susan Probst and Superintendent Tim Schigur say plans also are in place for more refresher training on seclusion and restraints throughout the school year.

Even before the Feb. 18 incident involving Smith, the district had begun to keep a closer eye on restraint and seclusion, they said.

Probst said she's asked school-level administrators in Milton to make sure she gets reports that are more detailed, itemized and timely for the next report to the board, which is due in September. She said some district schools last year didn't give her reports on use of seclusion and restraints until the very end of the school year.

That's changed this year, and it's helped her and staff to more quickly identify and deal with trends involving seclusion and restraint with individual students.

“As those reports start to come into me, and I see incidents (of seclusion and restraint) increase, I'm out at that building talking with the principal. I'm meeting with the principal and the special education staff. And I'm deciding if there's something we need to do to support the staff or the student.

“We pull staff and parents in and say, 'OK, that's three (restraints or seclusions) in one week. That's too much. Help us. Problem-solve with us for solutions,'” Probst said.

The focus then, Schigur and Probst said, is for staff to understand and plan for individual student's needs, not simply to react to a student's physical or emotional outbursts.


Schigur said the Feb. 18 incident between Smith and the student at Harmony School was the first time he can remember police investigating a district staff member's use of seclusion or restraint. Schigur reported the incident to police as a legal requirement after two staff members witnessed Smith's actions and reported them to Schigur.

The Janesville Police Department investigated the incident because Harmony School is on the city's north side. Janesville Police Lt. Keith Lawver said the department "occasionally” gets called into schools for “out of control” students, but he said the department seldom is asked to investigate use of potentially improper seclusion or restraint by school staff.

“It's uncommon,” he said.

Also uncommon, Flaschberger said, is for police to find criminal wrongdoing in investigations of seclusion and restraint in schools.

“They come into an investigation looking at it from the standpoint of (potential) child abuse. But abuse, that's a very high standard to prove. We've found that most police departments won't find inappropriate restraints of students are abuse,” Flaschberger said.

According to reports, Smith went in the Harmony School seclusion room where two staff had placed an autistic male student during a violent tantrum. She reportedly told staff she wanted to “antagonize” the boy and then stood on his feet and his knees and shouted “you're a rotten kid” after he tried to kick her, according to reports.

Schigur and Probst said five or six staff members are trained at each Milton elementary school to use two physical restraint holds and a third hold that requires two staff members. The holds involve staff using their own arms and legs to “wrap up” a student. Under state law, those maneuvers cannot be used in a way that restricts a student's breathing or puts pressure on the student's neck or head.

Each time a student is restrained or forcibly moved to a seclusion area, two trained staff have to be present, and a third staff must be available to take over if other staff get tired.

“The purpose is to have a student not injure themselves and others. The idea is de-escalation,” Schigur said.

He and Probst said seclusion normally is used for up to five minutes. Both seclusion and restraint, they said, are intended to be used only when other “positive” methods of reinforcement fail.

“It's not something we use on a daily basis,” Schigur said.

Schigur indicated that none of the restraint maneuvers that the district uses, which are based on professional training guidelines and policies, include staff standing or stepping on a student's limbs or body, as Smith reportedly did.

Flaschberger said she can't think of a situation where it would be appropriate to step on a student.

“I don't think DPI would consider that appropriate, ever,” she said.

In the wake of the Feb. 18 incident, Smith requested to leave the school for the rest of the school year, and she'd planned to retire at the end of the year. She was granted a paid leave by the school board at a special meeting earlier this month.

At that time, the school district “suspended” an investigation into Smith's conduct, Schigur said, and district officials wouldn't discuss whether they found Smith had acted improperly.

The Gazette filed an open records request seeking details of any investigation by the district into Smith's conduct Feb. 18 and for details of Smith's request for leave. As of Friday, the district had not responded.

It can be difficult for parents or advocacy groups to learn a district's findings in cases of potential misuse of seclusion and restraint, Flaschberger said, because district investigations become tangled in the human resources process, which is subject to privacy laws.

“At that point, a parent or an advocate doesn't get to guide or oversee anything. It's an employment issue. Some information can be available through open records requests, but it can be a lengthy, difficult process,” Flaschberger said.

In some cases, there may not be much more for those outside a school district to learn.

“They (school districts) might not end up doing a full-scale thing (investigation) if a person just agrees to leave,” Flaschberger said.

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