Calming

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Out of all the tools schools have for managing children, two are perhaps the most extreme: seclusion and restraint. The U.S. Department of Education says the techniques should only be used as a last resort, exclusively “in situations where the child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm.” The District of Columbia, however, has long ignored that stern guideline. In fact, there are zero laws governing how the techniques can be used in D.C.’s public schools—laws that exist almost everywhere else in the country, and for good reason.

Restraint generally refers to when a school staff member subdues a student by physically restricting their ability to move, like by forcibly taking the child to the ground and holding them there. In many states, it’s heavily regulated, because it can cause serious psychological and physical harm, and, in the absolute worst case, death. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed hundreds of cases across the country where the techniques led to alleged abuse, and found several instances where children were killed by the use of restraint. In Texas, one 14-year-old foster child with disabilities was restrained facedown on the floor because he wasn’t staying in his seat. To restrain him, a 230-pound teacher laid on top of him for 15 minutes, as an aide held his feet. The child repeatedly told them he couldn’t breathe—but by the time the teacher got off him, he was dead.

In Michigan, another 15-year-old child with autism had a seizure, and afterward, stood up and began flailing his arms. Rather than call an ambulance, an assistant principal and two staff held him on the ground. They kept him that way for an hour. When they finally released him and called 911, it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital, with the autopsy report stating that in “emotionally and physically agitated” individuals, prone restraint is associated with “sudden death.”

Seclusion is when a student is placed alone in a room and kept there against their will, sometimes for hours. But while it’s less obviously violent, there’s been little research into its effectiveness, and City Paper spoke to multiple advocates who think restraint can make sense in emergencies, but that schools should never use seclusion in any circumstance. Compared with restraint, the potential for harm is just as grave: GAO found one instance where a 13-year old with ADHD was kept in a seclusion room for an extended period, until he committed suicide.

The U.S. Department of Education has extensive guidelines on how these techniques should be used: Never as a form of punishment or discipline; only in dangerous emergencies, when other options have failed; and the parents should always be told what took place. But these guidelines are just that—guidelines—and there is no federal law governing the practices.

So the lack of federal action means the job of protecting children from improper restraint or seclusion has fallen to the states. Five states outright ban seclusion for children with disabilities. And according to a July report by the Autism National Committee, 38 states “provide some meaningful protections against both restraint and seclusion.” After those 38, state laws get progressively more lax, but the Committee found that the bottom of the barrel is clear. “4 states had laws providing such limited, weak protections that they are not at all like those that provide meaningful protection,” they report: Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C.

The District has no laws or regulations regarding the use of restraint and seclusion at public schools and charters. Nothing governing when or how they’re used. No requirement to maintain records about it, or to report it to any District agency. No requirement to tell parents that it’s happening.

But that doesn’t mean these techniques aren’t being used in D.C. And even worse, advocates say that in some instances, these two practices can quickly devolve into outright child abuse.

***

LaShelle Jones-Herrion’s sons were students at Bridges Public Charter School for more than two years before she found out about the “calming rooms.” She says she wasn’t told the rooms existed, and seclusion is not mentioned in Bridges’ parent handbook. She just wishes the school had told her going in. “If I knew they were building baby jail cells,” she says, “I would’ve never enrolled my son in that school.”

Her feelings toward Bridges started taking a turn for the worse during the 2018-2019 school year. Her older son Eric, who has autism, was 7 at the time; Marzet, who has a range of disability diagnoses, including anxiety disorder, was 6. The problems started, Jones-Herrion says, when she learned Marzet was being taken to his gym teacher for discipline. One day, she went to Bridges in the morning to chaperone Eric’s field trip, and Marzet wasn’t in class. When she returned, he still was nowhere to be seen.

She became concerned. And then, “out of nowhere,” she says, “Marzet comes up: ‘Mommy! Mommy! When they sent me to [the gym teacher], he pushed me against the wall and I hit my head—and I fell and hit my head again. And then he made the big kid fight me.’”

Outraged, Jones-Herrion went to an assistant principal, who said they’d investigate. Olivia Smith, the founder and head of Bridges, says the school and the police both conducted investigations, and “both concluded that the allegations were not true.”

Jones-Herrion was deeply concerned, but she kept her children at Bridges. Maybe it was just an isolated incident?

And then she learned about the so-called “calming rooms.” No one at the school told her directly, she says; she found out from Marzet himself. “He came home one day and told me that [a staff member] took him to a room upstairs,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Mom, I know how to get out of one blue room, but I don’t know how to get out of the other blue room with no doors.’” Marzet was terrified by the calming rooms: He said staff kept him shut in seclusion, against his will, in the dark. 

Jones-Herrion later talked to her nephew, an older student at Bridges, and she says he told her, “Kids are going to the seclusion room all the time. For not doing their work. For not sharpening their pencil.” Eventually, she came to understand from Marzet that the 6-year-old was being secluded “on a daily basis.” 

Smith says Bridges’ policy is to notify parents on the day restraint or seclusion occurs, but Jones-Herrion says she only ever heard about it from her son. Furthermore, she felt her attempts to get additional details were futile: “They wouldn’t give me any dates. Tell me how long he’s been locked in there. What they were doing it for.”

As time went on, the allegations continued to pile up. In one instance, Marzet said his dedicated aide took him into a room by himself, grabbed his own hand, and punched him in the face with it. (Again, Smith says the school and the police both investigated, and “both concluded the allegations were not true.”)

So eventually, Jones-Herrion decided to pull the plug. On Valentine’s Day of 2019, she removed both her sons from Bridges, home-schooling them for the remainder of the school year.

She was not the first parent at Bridges to raise alarms about the way the school uses seclusion and restraint. In 2017, two other parents filed a lawsuit against Bridges on behalf of their 6-year-old daughter, who has multiple serious disabilities that render her “effectively non-verbal.” Their allegations are disturbing. According to the complaint, aides threatened children, once saying, “Shut up, or I’m going to punch you in the face.” One aide allegedly carried a nonverbal, autistic child around the room by his feet, upside down. Another child with Down Syndrome was allegedly dragged across the floor to the bathroom by one arm. In a fourth instance, the complaint alleges, an aide grabbed a child with autism by his throat and shoved him into a bookcase hard enough to knock both the child and the books onto the floor.

And with their own daughter, they base their allegations on what a teacher atBridges told them he witnessed. The parents state that during naptime, staff used a particularly unorthodox form of restraint: They piled beanbags on top of her and placed their legs over the beanbags, pinning her motionless to the cot while she screamed the entire time.

The suit is ongoing. Smith says, “The school adamantly denies the allegations in the lawsuit” and “is vigorously contesting the allegations in Court.”

Attorneys at Disability Rights DC (DRDC)—D.C.’s only group with federal legal authority to investigate mistreatment of people with disabilities—looked into Marzet’s experience with seclusion at Bridges. Bridges told them that the 6-year-old had been taken to the seclusion room once, but that they had no evidence of him being taken there on other occasions. (Smith disputes that Marzet’s one documented “visit to the calming room constituted seclusion.”City Paper asked Smith why the six-year old would describe which rooms he can and cannot escape from, and about the allegation that seclusion happened daily. She responded, “We cannot share details about individual students due to privacy laws but we can say that this account is inaccurate.”)

But DRDC’s investigation also raised further questions about how the “calming rooms” were being used. Based on a review of Bridges’ records, DRDC reported that students were taken to the seclusion room at least 29 times that school year. The reasons given were by no means emergencies.

According to DRDC, one child was taken to the room because they “didn’t want to listen to responses from teachers.” Several children, DRDC reports, were taken because they complained about hunger: One because he “was upset when not given pizza.” Another was taken to the room because he “was cranky because he was hungry;” the record also noted that “the student had not eaten anything.”

Smith says Bridges put a “moratorium” on seclusion when the concerns were raised, and she disputes almost all of DRDC’s findings. She says the school’s logs only indicate 13 instances of seclusion that school year, and that the “calming rooms” are also used for time-outs and to give children a breather. She also states that “Bridges would never use seclusion as a disciplinary measure or a form of punishment,” and that “it is an outrageous mischaracterization of events to suggest that a student was placed in seclusion and punished because they were hungry. … The DRDC report fails to acknowledge the other circumstances that existed during those incidents, including elopement and physical aggression.”

Mary Nell Clark—DRDC’s managing attorney—stands by her group’s findings, saying that their report was based on Bridges’ records, and that if those records were somehow ambiguous or incomplete, that wouldn’t alleviate her concerns. “It may have been that the child was hurting himself or was throwing scissors, but that’s not in the record,” she says. “The importance of accurate record-keeping and of documented internal review cannot be overstated. These records provide the family with information on what may have happened to their child, facilitate future actions to support the child, and enable the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Public Charter School Board, and oversight agencies to provide oversight.”

And in D.C., that sort of oversight can be a precious commodity. On Sept. 19, DRDC sent their findings and recommendations to OSSE and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB). Three months later, neither agency has responded.

***

While she’s concerned about this particular school, Clark doesn’t want anyone to miss the forest for the trees. Seclusion, restraint, and abuse are not Bridges’ problems, she emphasizes—they’re D.C. problems. If anything, DRDC knows what they know about Bridges because in one respect, Bridges is better than most: They haverecords. Charter schools are not required to document these incidents at all (nor are D.C. charter schools subject to the Freedom of Information Act). And while DC Public Schools (DCPS) has guidelines that require some sort of report be filed with them when seclusion or restraint is used, there are no requirements about the level of detail.

In other states, these records have been the key for instituting reforms. Just last month in Illinois—where detailed records are required—ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribunefound 1,300 records of children secluded for more than an hour, including one instance where a child was locked up for 10 hours, and another where after about 30 minutes, a nine-year old defecated on himself, then still was kept locked up, naked, for almost another hour. The day after they published their findings, Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered emergency action to implement a state-wide ban on isolated seclusion.

It would likely be impossible for anyone to know if something similar was taking place in D.C. “We truly don’t know if schools are doing this for five minutes, or five hours,” says DRDC staff attorney Jessica Den Houter. DCPS uses restraint and seclusion, and when DRDC filed records requests, 36 charters self-reported that they use them too.

“We know other schools have these rooms. We know it’s happening,” Den Houter explains. “We just don’t know the scope or extent of it.”

Furthermore, if and when disturbing patterns with restraint or seclusion do come to light, D.C.’s utter lack of regulation makes it hard to hold anyone accountable. “The problem is that [even if schools misuse seclusion and restraint], the schools aren’t violating anything,” Clark says. “Because there isn’t any law for the schools to violate.”

This primarily affects children with disabilities. This is clear because schools must report statistics on their use to the U.S. Department of Education: In the 2015-2016 school year (the most recent year with data available), among the students who were restrained or secluded, over 60 percent had disabilities.

Another disparity is far more jarring. That year, every single student restrained or secluded was a person of color.

Ninety-five percent of children secluded were black. So were 94 percent of children restrained. All the other children were mixed-race, Hispanic, or Native-American.

“If 100 percent of the students this is happening to are students of color, there needs to be training at the instructional superintendent level, at the principal level, at the teacher level,” says Nigel Atwell, a local attorney who represents children with special needs. “And it can’t be a one time thing: That training needs to be research-based, and continuous.”

Atwell once tried to retire from the law to become a teacher at DCPS; however, he felt compelled to return to the profession because he believed that at the DCPS school where he taught, the principal and other officials “worked together to conceal the school’s failure to comply” with federal disability laws. The racial disparities don’t surprise him. “Black children are disciplined harsher than white children. That’s a fact,” he emphasizes. “I saw it with my own eyes when I was teaching at a diverse public school in DCPS.”

OSSE has proposed regulations that, if passed, would completely change the way seclusion and restraint can be used, at least for some children—it’d only apply to children with certain disability classifications. But for those students, it would implement rules that exist in a variety of other states. Seclusion and restraint could never be used as discipline. Seclusion couldn’t be in the dark, or longer than an hour. And afterward, schools would actually need to write a report and notify the parents. 

It’s not the agency’s first attempt at regulation. OSSE previously circulated similar proposals in 2012 and 2017, but never went so far as to formally propose a change. (OSSE did not say why the 2012 proposal fell through, but tells City Paper that the current proposal is based on feedback from the 2017 one.) The process has gone further this time—they’re currently accepting public comments. Clark thinks the proposed rules are imperfect (and should apply to all children, which is true in most states), but that if passed, they’d be a truly invaluable first step.

That said, the rules are only as good as their enforcement. “These don’t provide for accountability,” Clark says. There would still be no requirement to report how the techniques are used to OSSE or any other D.C. agency. And it’s unclear how they’d be enforced outside of expensive, cumbersome lawsuits. 

Several attorneys are worried about the District’s track record with enforcing even the very limited policies that already are in place. Sometimes, for instance, the District will send students with special needs to a nonpublic school certified by OSSE, with the agency footing the bill—unlike public schools, nonpublics currently have strict regulations governing restraint and seclusion. However, Atwell has filed complaints with OSSE about how certain nonpublic schools use the techniques, and says he’s concerned about whether OSSE is enforcing the only law that currently exists. (An OSSE spokesperson says, “OSSE takes its role and responsibilities seriously, especially as they relate to vulnerable student populations such as students with disabilities.”) Likewise, DCPS currently has relatively detailed “guidelines” on how these techniques should be used, but DRDC says “these are merely guidelines… There appears to be little accountability or follow-up to ensure that incidents are, in fact, handled in accordance with the guidelines.”

In a 2017report, DRDC detailed an incident of restraint at River Terrace Education Campus, a DCPS school that serves 98 percent students of color. DRDC had been told that a 17-year-old girl with an intellectual disability had been restrained by two River Terrace staff: During the course of the restraint, the staff allegedly ripped her jacket, pulled her hair, and punched her in the face.

That day, the girl’s mother took her to a Medstar urgent care facility on Capitol Hill for her injuries. The nurse practitioner noted that the child had a swollen lip and a head injury, reporting loss of consciousness, nausea, and vomiting.

DRDC opened an investigation, and say River Terrace gave them an incident report that mentioned two instances of the child being restrained but did not describe either “in any detail.” DRDC also took their concerns to DCPS, which opened up its own inquiry. However, DCPS concluded that while the incident report “did not contain detail regarding the length of the restraint, where it occurred and who was involved,” it was “otherwise sufficient.” They concluded their investigation, finding that the staff “administered the restraints appropriately” and that it was “clear that no injury was sustained.”

That same DRDC report also detailed another incident involving a 5-year old girl receiving special education at a D.C. charter school—they don’t name the school to respect her privacy, but say it’s not Bridges. This time, they were able to get surveillance video. The video shows a teacher telling the girl to get into the classroom, but the child continues to stay outside. So the teacher grabs the child by the arm and pushes her in the room, appearing to lock the door. They’re alone in there: As Whodini’s “The Freaks Come Out at Night” blares in the classroom, the video shows the girl struggling to get out. She begs to get a drink of water, but the teacher refuses, and leaves her alone in the room.

A few minutes later, the teacher returns and starts shouting. The girl begins kicking a chair lying on the classroom floor, and she grabs the child by the arm, saying, “I told you to pick up the chair.” Then, suddenly, she shoves the five-year old to the ground, and the girl bangs against the floor and off another chair.

According to DRDC, the school told the girl’s father that the teacher was fired, but would not assure him that they would take any further steps to protect children going forward.

Of course, punching a child in the face isn’t just restraint: It could constitute abuse, and there are laws against that. (Corporal punishment is also banned). But once again, advocates are troubled by D.C.’s system for dealing with such allegations. Charters do not even have to report allegations of abuse to any regulatory body, and neither charters nor DCPS schools are required to investigate the allegations themselves.

OSSE, PCSB, and DCPS all did say that schools must report allegations of abuse to the police and/or the Child and Family Services Agency. Clark emphasizes, though, that there are plenty of incidents police don’t rule as criminal—such as the River Terrace incident—but which nevertheless ought to prompt schools and regulatory bodies to scramble for reform.

“What happens in these situations is that it gets referred to the police, and they write a report,” says Yaida Ford, a civil rights attorney who’s worked extensively on abuse in D.C. schools. “But I’ve seen reports that are five words [long], and do not describe at all what happened.” She says the process usually works like this: “Typically, after a child is injured during an interaction with a staff person, someone from the school calls the police. Parents will follow up and then a detective will take the case and refer it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but they don’t prosecute,” she explains. “Nothing happens. I’ve seen this over and over again. And the parents are left trying to figure out where to educate their kids because they don’t feel safe going back to that school where the child was injured.”

“There’s no avenue of justice when students are assaulted—provably assaulted—by school staff,” Ford says. Parents can sue, but that’s expensive, time-consuming, and can be difficult to win. She thinks regulatory agencies need to change their attitudes. “It’s not, ‘We will make sure this never happens again,’” she emphasizes. “That’s not the government’s attitude when it comes to students of color.”

Scot Danforth is a professor of education at Chapman University, and he feels restraint and seclusion are “inherently violent.” In his view, the line between assault and business as usual can easily get blurry. Danforth was a special education teacher for seven years, and used restraint and seclusion himself before he started to speak out against them. He analogizes attempts at regulation to the rules for boxing: They can make students safer, but they don’t make them safe.

With restraint, “it’s really hard. Everyone’s full of adrenaline … It’s a little like a wrestling match,” he recalls. “And when you’re in the fight, it’s hard to draw a line. People do get injured.”

He also believes that seclusion should never be used—that it’s far more violent than just a time-out. “Kids don’t go to the seclusion rooms voluntarily. They’re taken there by force,” he explains. “You bring the child in and you place them in the back of the room—and then you have to run before they get out. Would you do that with your own child?”

Danforth thinks these techniques are best understood in a historical context. “These practices came over to special education in the ’60s and ’70s from psychiatric hospitals and large state institutions,” where they were already common, he says. In those days, the attitude toward special education was different. Prominent researchers were working on using cattle prods to manage autistic children.

Then, “around the ’80s, there was a move in the entire field to get away from the punitive stuff, and only use positive approaches,” he emphasizes. “But this one thing has remained. It’s really from another era.”

***

Den Houter thinks schools’ use of seclusion and restraint raises deeper questions about the school system as a whole. “How did it get like this, where this would become a go-to option?” she asks. “And that the District knows, and is doing nothing about it?”

Furthermore, the full extent of the problem remains to be seen. “When I was teaching, when I saw black boys being disciplined more harshly, it wasn’t just one boy, and it wasn’t just one year,” Atwell says. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

As they stand, OSSE’s proposed rules would do little to make the problem more transparent. There still would be no requirement to report these incidents to OSSE, or to make data public. So the public would continue to have just one source of information—the data given to the federal government. And there’s good reason to believe those numbers might be unreliable.

This June, the General Accountability Office publicly questioned the accuracy of that data across the country. They had found that in the most recent filings, 10 of America’s 30 largest school districts (with more than 100,000 students) reported zero instances of seclusion or restraint. But upon questioning, nine of those 10 districts admitted their numbers were incorrect. One of those was Fairfax County—where the discrepancy only came to light after WAMU reviewed the schools’ records (detailed reports are required in Virginia). While Fairfax schools reported zero incidents that year, WAMU discovered they actually used the techniques almost 2,000 times.

In the 2015-2016 school year (the most recent reporting period), District schools reported a total of 907 incidents where they used seclusion or restraint. However, about 86 percent of D.C. schools reported zero incidents, and there’s no one checking that that’s correct. Both OSSE and PCSB told City Paper they don’t do anything to confirm these reports are accurate.

As for DCPS, City Paper found at least one school whose data appears to be demonstrably false. In the year documents revealed that one student had been restrained at least twice at River Terrace (and allegedly been punched in the face), River Terrace reported zero instances of restraint. (Neither River Terrace nor DCPS responded to questions about this.)

Clark thinks this lack of transparency—and lack of reporting to OSSE—is deeply concerning. “I think it’s important, especially in a system full of charter schools, for the public to know how much each of these schools is using seclusion and restraint,” she says. “And to know that when a child is hurt, someone is looking out for them.”

***

Jones-Herrion does not feel like anyone’s been looking out for her sons. This September, her boys started at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus, a DCPS school where, according to the most recent data, 100 percent of students are black, Hispanic, or mixed-race. Going in, she was optimistic. She felt it might be a good fit.

That feeling lasted two days. On the boys’ second day at LaSalle, she says she was with Eric in his classroom, and he was playing quietly. But when she walked out, she heard a shout: “Mommy!” She rushed back in—to find a staff member holding her son on the floor in a headlock, with his knee on the 8-year old’s chest. She asked the staff member what happened. He reportedly told her, “He tried to elope [i.e. leave] and come after you.”

Jones-Herrion went straight to the principal, Shelly Gray. However, after she explained what she saw, she says she was told simply, “I need you to leave so the staff can handle the transition.”

That was only the beginning. Her sons reported being restrained on the floor. Eric—her older son with autism—told her that a staff member locked him in a library (a form of seclusion). Then, on Nov. 6, she was at the school discussing Eric’s education, with her tape recorder running. Suddenly, Marzet comes running down the hallway: “Stop touching me!” Two teachers follow behind. They deny ever touching him, and Marzet says they’re lying. Instead, one teacher says, “He’s not doing his work. He tells us a couple bad words.” But Marzet insists: “They both were pulling on my arms. Really hard. Like this.” Jones-Herrion says he demonstrated the two of them restraining him, criss-crossing his arms behind his back while one grabbed his neck, pushing him to the floor. “My head was on the ground,” he says. “They was bending my neck down.” 

On the recording, the boy sounds like he’s about to cry. “I want to call 991 [sic] … I am praying for God out there,” he tells his mother. She tries to comfort him: “Why are you praying for God out there?”

“To protect me.”

Once again, Jones-Herrion went straight to Principal Gray. On the recording, Gray explains that there are no cameras in the classrooms, but that the school will investigate and follow up. Then she tells Jones-Herrion, “I’m going to ask that you exit the building.”

Jones-Herrion says she hasn’t heard from her since.

City Paper asked Gray about these allegations, and also asked River Terrace’s principal about the girl allegedly punched in the face. Both redirected us to a DCPS spokesperson. DCPS said, simply, that all the allegations at the two schools “were referred to the appropriate DC Government agencies, and DCPS has not substantiated any employee misconduct in either instance.”

Meanwhile, Jones-Herrion is trying to figure out where she can turn. “I’m at a loss,” she says. “My sons are not safe. I just want my children to have an education.” And she’s extremely disappointed to learn that, in her opinion, the problems don’t stop at any one school.

“It’s a cycle,” she emphasizes. “And it’s a cycle that needs to be broken.”