Milton School District officials insist secluding and restraining students is a last resort intended to keep others safe when a child is acting aggressively.
A Gazette review of area school districts showed Milton had among the most seclusion and restraint incidents over the last three years. Only Elkhorn and Janesville had more.
Milton’s policy came under scrutiny after one mother called the school district’s treatment of her son “heinous” in a Nov. 28 incident at Milton West.
Nicole Johnson said her son was removed from class and taken to the school’s seclusion room for throwing Play-Doh. She believed he was not endangering other students and that putting him in seclusion was unnecessary, she told The Gazette shortly after the incident.
The Milton Police Department found no wrongdoing and did not open a criminal investigation.
The school district is legally prevented from commenting about specific student issues. In a statement, the district said it found no violations but would make some “immediate adjustments” to how it handles seclusion and restraint.
District Administrator Tim Schigur said every seclusion or restraint incident is followed by a debriefing among those involved. Making adjustments is standard, even if it is as simple as giving the student more space or time to calm before taking action.
“Our policy is up to date and in line with current practice. Our training’s as well,” Schigur said. “But it’s always an opportunity for us to review. How did we handle it? Did we do well? As good practitioners we reflect upon would we do anything differently.”
Most, but not all, incidents that require seclusion or restraint involve special education students or those with emotional or behavioral issues.
If students are physically harming themselves, classmates or a teacher and normal strategies to de-escalate the situation are ineffective, teachers can seclude or restrain the child until he or she calms down, Milton Student Services Director Susan Probst said.
Teachers can restrain students showing signs of physical aggression or violence. They are trained how to properly hold a student to avoid injury to themselves or the child, Probst said.
Seclusion and restraint training recurs each year. Returning staff undergo a half-day session, while new staff spend a full day learning seclusion and restraint tactics, she said.
Seclusion can include use of an empty room, such as the one at Milton West used for Johnson’s son. In the Milton School District, such rooms also exist at East and Harmony elementary schools and Northside Intermediate School, Schigur said.
Seclusion could also mean having other kids leave the classroom and wait in the hallway until the student regains self-control, he said.
Probst said keeping the emotional student inside the classroom ensures the rest of the school building will not be disrupted.
“Sometimes what will happen when you remove all the other kids from the room, the student who’s lost control will rip things off the wall. They’ll tip things over,” she said. “But we’re not going hands-on with them (and restraining). We’re allowing them to get rid of the frustration. Now let’s sit down and talk about it and problem solve. How do we prevent this from happening again?”
The state Department of Public Instruction says seclusion or restraint can be used only “when a student’s behavior presents a clear, present and imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or others, and it is the least restrictive intervention feasible.”
Probst said there is an emotional impact to students when seclusion or restraint is used that can affect academic performance.
That’s why the district prefers to use seclusion and restraint as infrequently as possible. Staff come up with strategies for some special needs students that can help calm them before seclusion or restraint becomes necessary, Probst said.
The methods vary between students. Some need to be distracted. Some need space. Others need to be comforted.
The district tries to personalize these strategies to individual student interests. That could mean rewarding a child with time on a Nintendo Wii if the student enjoys video games, Probst said.
Outsiders could misinterpret these methods as ways kids get out of doing work. But the strategies often keep students on task, which improves their learning, she said.
The student services team designs the strategies and attaches them only to students who have emotional or behavioral problems as defined by state criteria. Not any student can leave class to play video games, Schigur said.
“It’s not as simple, from a person on the outside, ‘Well you know just hold them accountable. Use discipline.’” Schigur said. “Well, it’s not that simple, and it’s also not that effective.”
Used in all districts
Records from school districts across The Gazette’s coverage area show seclusion and restraint is used everywhere. Probst suspected many districts had similar procedures to Milton because most use Neola, an educational consulting company, to develop these policies.
In many area districts, it is common for numbers to fluctuate between years.
Schigur called Milton’s numbers “what was needed that school year.” Seclusion and restraint are used only when necessary, depending on the circumstances of individual students, he said.
If the number of incidents goes down, that could be because district behavioral strategies have helped. An affected student could have started using medication or outside counseling. Or the child might have simply grown out of aggressive behavior, Probst said.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Well the numbers went down this year or they went up, so you must be doing something right or something wrong,’” Probst said. “Because it’s truly based on every child.”
It’s also difficult to compare numbers between districts. While the Department of Public Instruction requires districts to report seclusion and restraint data annually to their school boards, districts are not required to submit that data to the state.
This causes a lack of uniformity between district reports. Some districts categorize incidents as seclusion only, restraint only and both.
Some differentiate between seclusion and restraint, meaning an incident that involved both methods would be tallied under each category.
Some report only the total number of incidents and do not categorize further.
And whether a particular incident is considered seclusion or restraint varies between districts.
The Elkhorn School District had by far the most seclusion and restraint incidents among school districts surveyed, averaging 334 incidents over three years. Janesville, the largest district in the survey, had a three-year average of 159 incidents, the second-highest average in the group.
Rita Geilfuss, the pupil services and special education team leader at the Elkhorn School District, said what’s important is for districts to be consistent each year when reporting to their school boards.
Geilfuss told The Gazette she has a strict reporting policy. Any time teachers must go hands-on with students, they are expected to report the incidents to Geilfuss.
“It’s tough to see a kid hurting themselves, scratching themselves, pulling their hair out, banging their head against walls,” she said. “We can’t allow that to happen. It’s our responsibility to keep them from hurting themselves or others.”
Milton, whose three-year average was similar to Janesville’s, also prefers a broader reporting policy. Probst said they counted as seclusion a recent incident when a student was told to remain in a classroom.
“I really prefer to be as transparent as possible. I’m putting these numbers out there so they’re useful,” Probst said. “When I do this report to the board, I send to principals first. Principals with high numbers feel bad about their numbers being higher. But it’s that transparency that helps us find better solutions.”
Geilfuss said Elkhorn’s high totals could partially be explained by the district’s magnet program for students with significant emotional and behavioral needs. While it includes only one student from an outside district, the program means Elkhorn does not send its own students elsewhere.
She and Probst said seclusion and restraint takes its toll on teachers and staff. The general public would be shocked to learn what some teachers encounter daily, Geilfuss said.
Parents will sometimes disagree with the way teachers handle their child’s behavior, as shown by the Nov. 28 incident in Milton. But parents are mostly supportive and encourage teachers to persevere through tough classroom incidents that require seclusion or restraint, Probst said.
“When we talk to our parents about having to use seclusion and restraint, so many of them are so supportive that they’re keeping their child safe. They’re so glad their child gets support every day,” Probst said. “They’re seeing their child make gains.
“The parents are the ones that really, for the most part, support the strategies that we’re trying with their child.”