Investigative report: Controversial child control

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – A controversial method to maintain control in local classrooms is being criticized by parents as child abuse. New legislation mandates that educators adopt tighter rules for when and how it is used.

The practice is known as seclusion and restraint. It is utilized throughout the country.  Governor Terry McAuliffe signed legislation in March calling for stricter regulations.

The Board shall adopt regulations on the use of seclusion and restraint in public elementary and secondary schools in the Commonwealth that (i) are consistent with its Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures for Managing Student Behavior in Emergency Situations and the Fifteen Principles contained in the U.S. Department of Education’s Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document…

Seclusion involves locking a child in a small room for minutes or even hours at a time. Restraint is a series of physical holds to bring an unruly child under control. The two steps can be used in tandem or separately.

“This is child abuse. If I were to lock my child in a closet for a couple of hours, I’d be arrested,” said Barbara Cummings. She and her husband toured Windsor Woods Elementary in Virginia Beach on behalf of their 8-year-old son who has autism. The school is affiliated with SECEP, the Southeastern Cooperative Education Program.

SECEP provides alternative and specialized education in eight area school districts, in more than 80 individual schools.  Its website says staff members are trained in behavioral support and crisis prevention strategies.

After taking the tour, Cummings and her husband decided not to enroll their son at the school when staff began describing the use of seclusion and restraint. The school made an audio recording of the tour and Cummings has a copy.

On the tape, SECEP staff members are heard saying seclusion can be used from minutes up to two hours, depending on the situation. The door locks magnetically, once the child is inside, and the staffer flips a switch.

“It’s bare, nothing in there at all. No padded walls, just cinderblocks,” Cummings said. “No windows, except in the door.”

Cummings and her husband also wanted to know if children can be harmed when they are restrained.

“Some kids have had bumps, either from head-butting someone, or just in the process of getting restrained; a chin against the wall or something like that,” a SECEP staffer says during the tour.

10 On Your Side visited SECEP headquarters in Norfolk, wanting to know how, why, and how often SECEP uses seclusion and restraint. We asked what therapeutic value it had, and reminded an administrator that federal guidelines discourage its use. Assistant Director Christopher Old refused comment, walked away and closed his office door.

Restraint and Seclusion: Federal Guidelines

Federal guidelines use strong terms regarding seclusion and restraint, saying it should be used only as a last resort. The child must be an imminent danger – either to him/herself, to other students, or to staff. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says it can have very serious consequences including death, and there’s no evidence that it’s effective. In fact, the US Department of Education resource guide mentions the word “death” twelve times.

Restraint and Seclusion: U.S. Department of Education Resource Guide (pdf) 

A woman who worked in five SECEP schools, who wants to remain anonymous, says seclusion and restraint became a daily first response or second response tactic used by the teachers and the teachers’ assistants. “I would see a hold being used on a child to escort them to lunch.”

Several companies teach restraint methods for classrooms, institutions, and workplaces. We contacted The Mandt System, headquartered in Texas. The company says it conducts training in the restraint holds in many Virginia school divisions.  But a company official said once a school staffer is trained, “We have no control how often or under what circumstances it is used. “ The company stressed that the holds are just one part of a larger program that encourages other non-physical forms of intervention to defuse a problem.

National data indicates seclusion and restraint is used more often for children in special education, but not always. About 40 percent of the time the child is not emotionally or developmentally disabled.

The Autism National Committee commissioned a study to see how seclusion and restraint compares from state to state. It says when compared with other states, current Virginia guidelines do not provide meaningful protection for children. The study says legislation passed last month and set to go in effect July 1 will greatly improve protections for children.

Document: Senate Case Review

Parents will welcome the new rules, but some would prefer to see seclusion and restraint be banned entirely.

“It’s not right, it’s so not right,” Cummings said. “There’s nothing therapeutic about this.”

A specialist who has worked in SECEP schools points to an alternative means of maintaining control, Applied Behavior Analysis.  “(With ABA methods) I have seen a child go from flipping a table and throwing a chair to being calm when given verbal directions, and this was a non-verbal child.”

Alternative treatment: Applied Behavior Analysis

Since the promotion began airing this past weekend for the 10 On Your Side investigation “Controversial Child Control”, parents and former SECEP staff members contacted us wanting to be heard on both sides of the controversy.

A mother with two children in the Norfolk SECEP program says seclusion and restraint have been used on her children in some cases “several times a week.” But she also sees the methods as necessary, and says “people don’t understand that these teachers are taking abuse from by bad kids.” She says her children have benefitted from the program when it comes to learning respect and right from wrong.

However a man who says he worked in SECEP classrooms for ten years says seclusion and restraint is used far too often and hardly as a last resort. The former staffer says it has become a method of discipline rather than control. He says he witnessed children being secluded and/or restrained for failing to follow directions, and not just in cases of imminent danger as federal guidelines recommend.

Kathleen Graycochea has a son with autism. Although he has not been subject to seclusion and restraint, she advocates for other parents. “It’s tragic because these kids are some of our most vulnerable kids.”

10 On Your Side wants to hear from you.  What are your thoughts on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools?

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