This story originally published online at NC Newsline.

It happened in front of the entire fourth grade. In February 2019, Wake County parent Jocelyn Pease saw a video of her child, who has speech and learning disabilities, being restrained by school staff inside the cafeteria. In the following moments, the child would be put into a closet and barricaded there by the weight of school staff for 14 minutes. The child would later be placed in two dozen “timeouts” at the school.

Pease and her lawyer, Stacey Gahagan, settled a lawsuit earlier this month regarding these “timeouts” against the Wake County Public School System in federal court. Along with the changes they requested in the settlement, Pease aims to increase public awareness about the national issue of wrongful seclusion and restraint used on students with disabilities.

“It is our right as parents to know when restraint and seclusion have happened to our children and to have any and all incidents of restraint and seclusion be reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil rights as is already federally mandated,” Pease said.

A frequently opaque process

Although each situation is different, there are signs families can look for to remain vigilant about whether this is happening to their child.

“Seclusion” is confining a student alone in an enclosed space where the student is locked inside or incapable of leaving because of physical, mental or intellectual capacity.

It can happen without a student’s family knowing about it.

A former teacher, Gahagan is an attorney who represents students with disabilities. She said that it’s important for parents to receive written notification of any student’s restraint or seclusion.

“They need to be sure that they’re reading very carefully what comes home from school,” Gahagan said. “We’ve had parents that were getting point sheets, or things home from school and there were notations like ‘T. O.’ for ‘time out.’”

Parents might think time out means their child was placed in a corner, Gahagan said, “and it meant seclusion.”

Another term that schools might use for seclusion is “escort.”

Children with disabilities have an “IEP,” or Individual Education Plan. An IEP usually includes goals for academic progress, plus the related programs and accommodations the children qualify for to help with their mental or physical disability. An IEP also details behavior management approaches, and can include seclusion and restraint, but even then, with limitations.

“Many students with disabilities end up in specialized behavioral programs within a district,” said Nick Lett, an advocate on Disability Rights North Carolina’s education team. “Some programs claim that restraint and seclusion is an essential part of the program and must be used regardless of the parent’s wishes, or if a student’s IEP allows restraint and seclusion or not,” Lett said.

“This should be a big red flag to parents, and they may want to get more information on the program and how it uses restraint and seclusion,” he added.

The situation in Wake County

According to Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) policy, school personnel may use physical restraint as provided for in state law. That includes restraining a child to remove a weapon or other dangerous objects, to prevent or break up a fight, to calm or comfort them, to prevent them from hurting themselves, and for self-defense.

The policy also allows restraint if it is included in the child’s Behavior Intervention Plan. However, if it cannot be done safely, the school’s administration should be notified immediately before the classroom’s staff tries to intervene.

WCPSS “provides training and ongoing guidance to staff and administrators in an effort to avoid any noncompliance regarding seclusion and restraint,” a district spokesperson said in a statement to NC Newsline.

“When allegations are raised regarding the potential inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, Employee Relations conducts a review of the allegations and takes personnel action as warranted by their findings. Responses can range from reprimands and re-training for minor violations to suspensions or dismissal for severe violations.”

In Pease’s case, the federal court found WCPSS failed to comply with the state’s Discipline Data Reporting Procedures. Nor did the district report any use of restraint or seclusion to the Office of Civil Rights in the 2018-19 school year, even though Pease’s child had been secluded and restrained at least 22 times during that period.

Gahagan represented another Wake County family whose student was illegally isolated in a storage room during the 2018-2019 school year, as reported by WRAL.

The most recent Wake County data listed with the federal Office of Civil Rights are not current and don’t list any incidents after 2017. During this time, there were no reported instances of Wake County students protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Act being secluded or restrained.

Signs of trouble for students with disabilities

Students with disabilities who are in classrooms separate from the rest of the school are at the highest risk for abuse. Even when abuse is suspected, sometimes the justice system declines to investigate due to a lack of evidence or other issues, according to Disability Rights North Carolina’s website.

Because of their disability, some students can’t accurately tell their parents what is happening or has happened to them. But parents can document alleged abuse in several ways. Parents can photograph bruises they see on their children when they first come home from school. They can also request to pull video from a school’s security cameras, Gahagan said.

But sometimes the abuse manifests as psychological problems, not physical ones.

“Sometimes parents don’t know for a long time, and they start to see changes in their children,” Gahagan said. “I’ve had parents say that their child starts having more nightmares and starts having separation anxiety and not wanting to be left in a room alone. We’ve had lots of clients end up in trauma-informed counseling because of how devastating (that is) to their child.”

Reforms adopted 

As part of the settlement in Pease’s case, WCPSS agreed to be more transparent. This includes publishing information about different physical restraint techniques that staff are trained to use on students, as well posting online semi-annual data on the restraint and seclusion of students.

Families whose children are in an Elementary Behavior Support (EBS) classroom must receive all available information about the school’s restraint and seclusion practices at their annual IEP meeting.

Parents must be notified by the end of the school day if their child is restrained or secluded. They also have the right to view any available video footage of the incident, which must be kept on file for up to three years following the seclusion.

“This lack of transparency and accountability prevents parents from protecting their children who often have challenges communicating in the first place. If parents are aware of this possibility with their child, then they know what questions to ask, can ask to see the places their child will be placed and how they are treated, and most importantly — learn the code words that teacher uses for their child being held in seclusion or physically restrained by staff,” Pease said.

The WCPSS Board also agreed to retain an independent consultant through the 2025-26 school year to review the Elementary Behavior Support program, visit EBS classes, provide training, and specifically advise regarding the district’s practices related to seclusion and restraint.

Gahagan said that the best thing that parents can do for their children going into the upcoming school year is to remain attentive to their children and to their school.

“Essentially, if they have children that are non-verbal, that are not in general education classes for the large part of the day, that have behavior issues, that they recognize that this is a possibility of you know what could happen to their child,” Gahagan said.

Click here for a summary prepared by Disability Rights NC of the law and the rights of children and parents with respect to seclusion and restraint in schools.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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