Every time Jennifer Tidd’s son was secluded or restrained at school, she received a letter from his teachers. Her son has autism and behavioral issues, and over three years — from 2013 to 2016 — Tidd got 437 of those letters.
“I see this pile of documents that’s 5 inches tall that represents hundreds of hours of being locked into a room, and I feel, you know, horrible,” Tidd says.
She’s sitting in her living room in Northern Virginia, her head hanging over the stack of papers. Tears are in her eyes.
“What kind of parent lets this happen to their child? … I just trusted the school. I thought that it would work — we were at our wits’ end with the behaviors and stuff. But it actually just made it worse.”
Restraint and seclusion are most often used on students with disabilities or special needs — children like Tidd’s son. Those terms can mean anything from holding or using restraints on students to isolating them in a separate room or space.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requires that school districts report every time a student is restrained or secluded. And while tens of thousands of cases are reported, many suspect those numbers fall short.
That’s what happened in Tidd’s district, Fairfax County Public Schools, which serves more than 187,000 students. For years, the district told the government that it never secluded or restrained pupils. But an investigation by WAMU found hundreds of cases recorded in internal documents and letters that schools sent to parents.
Fairfax isn’t the only district reporting suspiciously low numbers. According to an Education Week analysis of data from the 2013-14 school year, nearly 80% of districts reported that they never secluded or restrained special education students. That number includes New York City, the nation’s largest school district.
The Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, is conducting an investigation into the quality of the data that school districts are reporting. Jackie Nowicki, a director at the GAO, says media accounts and testimony from lawmakers have raised “concerns that seclusion and restraint [have] continued to be chronically underreported.”
The investigation in Fairfax highlights a debate taking place in communities across the United States. In Washington state, parents in one school district have filed lawsuits claiming that the district failed to notify them when their children were restrained or secluded. According to some of those lawsuits, that failure has had consequences for families.
“Guidelines are in place for a reason”
Restraint and seclusion are controversial practices in public schools. According to federal guidance, they’re supposed to be used as a last resort, when students become a danger to themselves or others.
“Guidelines are in place for a reason,” says the GAO’s Nowicki. “When seclusion and restraint is inappropriately used, it can create some really dangerous situations, especially for some of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told a group of reporters recently that the department is reviewing some districts that reported questionable numbers.
“Our hope is that by proactively going and auditing a few places where things don’t seem to add up and then helping inform and educate, that we can have a much more cohesive approach to ensuring that every child is safe at school and respected for the individual they are,” DeVos said.
In response to the WAMU investigation, Fairfax County is now reporting almost 1,700 cases of seclusion and restraint for the 2017-18 school year. And Fairfax officials say they plan to submit corrected data for the 2015-16 school year.
“It is clear that as a system we have fallen short in this area,” said Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand at a school board meeting in April. He pledged to work to “heal the hurt and systematically address these concerns around restraint and seclusion.”
“For a nonverbal person, that’s absolute desperation”
Tidd still thinks about all the time her son spent in the district’s seclusion rooms.
Many are built like Russian nesting dolls — rooms within rooms. The innermost room is reserved for students with more egregious behavior issues. That room is concrete and about the size of a closet. Inside, there are no chairs to sit on and the only window is on the door.
Tidd says the repeated seclusions traumatized her son, causing him to hate school and making him more violent and distrusting of authority figures.
“He would poop and pee himself to get out of the seclusion room — he was so desperate to get out,” she says. “This is a child who was completely potty trained since he was 5. … That to me, for a nonverbal person, that’s absolute desperation.”
The school district wouldn’t comment on Tidd’s case.
Tidd’s son is 13 now, and Fairfax County pays for him to attend a private school for students with disabilities. Tidd says he hasn’t been secluded once since October 2018, when he started at his current school, and his behavior has dramatically improved.
Tidd knows she is lucky. Not all parents would be able to hire a lawyer and have their child transferred to a private school.
In some states, seclusion and restraint reporting requirements go beyond federal regulations. Washington state requires school districts to report annual data to their state education agency — that’s twice as often as the Office for Civil Rights calls for.
But families in one Washington community say there’s an important group their school district isn’t routinely reporting to: parents.
An investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting found several parents in Vancouver Public Schools — a 24,000-student district just north of Portland — who say school officials rarely notified them when their children had been restrained.
Sarah McPartland says she sent her son, Landon, to Vancouver Public Schools for years before repeated restraints and a lack of follow-through from education officials led her to withdraw him and file a lawsuit.
The district settled McPartland’s lawsuit but did not admit any wrongdoing. District officials declined to comment on the case.
Landon, 10, is now home-schooled. On a chilly winter day, he moves quickly from brewing tea to painting figurines to examining salamander eggs under his microscope.
“I have something called Asperger’s syndrome, which is a specialty type of autism where … well, I can get really involved and, to an extent, obsessed with things I like,” he explains over tea.
Landon also has things he really does not like. His mother and his former education assistant say getting Landon to do math requires creative lesson planning — when he is pressed to do an activity he doesn’t like, he can lose control.
Landon recalls getting so upset once in class that he ran away from school, and school staff chased him.
“They shoved me to the ground. They grabbed my wrist, and they dragged me up the hill by my wrist. And then they hugged me, like in a wrestling grip, only they wouldn’t let go,” Landon says.
Like many states, Washington requires that schools inform parents whenever a child is restrained. But the lawsuit asserted that the school never told Landon’s mother about this incident.
“It’s never great to be in a position as a parent when you’ve got to go back to your child and say, ‘I heard that this happened’ and that you’re sorry. And the response from your child is, ‘What does it matter? You weren’t there to help me,’ ” McPartland says with tears in her eyes.
For parents and students, the “trust was broken”
Cara Bailey’s 12-year-old son, Colin, has autism and is mostly nonverbal. Bailey says Colin would be restrained and secluded in his Vancouver school, sometimes several times a day, without her knowledge.
“The only way that we realized that he was getting restrained was he came home with handprints on him.”
Like McPartland, Bailey opted to home-school her son rather than send him back to Vancouver Public Schools.
“You expect that they’re there to educate him and keep him safe. … That trust was broken for him, and it has a huge effect on him,” Bailey says.
She also filed a legal complaint against Vancouver Public Schools. That filing included a note from Colin’s pediatric psychiatrist: It said Colin suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his treatment at school. Bailey says Colin will throw fits just passing by a school in the car.
As with McPartland’s case, the district settled Bailey’s lawsuit without admitting wrongdoing, and district officials declined to comment.
McPartland points out that Washington law requires more than notification.
“The law also states that it should be talked about — the parent and child should come in to talk about it — which never occurred in any of our cases,” McPartland says.
She didn’t learn Landon had been dragged uphill by the arm until months later. An employee who saw it happen told McPartland about it — but not until after she left her job at the district.
Meanwhile, incidents of restraint and seclusion are on the rise in Vancouver. The most recent district numbers show an increase of more than 50 percent, from 1,641 incidents in the 2016-17 school year to more than 2,500 a year later.
The district says that this increase could have been caused by a number of things, including program changes or changes in the student population.
“We have been hit and kicked and bit and scratched”
Many educators say they don’t want to restrain students, but sometimes it’s necessary to keep the student, teachers and other kids safe. And at times, restraints can help.
Landon says he once had an aide who was able to calm him down.
“She didn’t hold me down — she just sort of constrained me, like tight, with pressure, which actually was kind of relaxing,” he recalls.
But educators acknowledge that even well-performed restraints can have a traumatizing effect on students, especially if they’re done repeatedly. And restraints are hard to do perfectly in the middle of a chaotic classroom. Injuries are common.
Kathy Forbes worked for years as an education assistant for students with disabilities in the small coastal city of Tillamook, Ore., about an hour and a half from Vancouver.
“We have been hit and kicked and bit and scratched,” Forbes says. “Our hair has been pulled. There’s been people who have been kicked in the head. … We’ve had people with broken bones.”
Forbes agrees with many parents and experts that the best approach is to know students, understand their disabilities and anticipate problems in advance. That way you avoid big physical conflicts.
Joel Nixon, a school social worker in Clackamas, Ore., not far from Vancouver, has spent 20 years working with students with disabilities. He says the proactive approach Forbes describes takes a special kind of expertise.
“Without that level of training, it becomes much more difficult for a person to know what to do and how to do it,” Nixon explains. “So being trained, being mentored and then having actual experience is important for staff working with kids who become escalated and dangerous.”
Nixon says the investments needed to reduce restraints and seclusions would pay off down the road.
“Not only will [students] not be restrained at school — they won’t grow up to be adults that have difficulties with physical aggression and dangerous behavior.”
But first, schools need more staff and training. And that means more money — a resource that’s already stretched in public schools.
Rob Manning is an education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Jenny Abamu covers education at WAMU.
Nicole Cohen edited this story for broadcast and for the Web.