Thousands of students in Ohio and hundreds in this region are being physically restrained and held in seclusion two years after the state moved to limit those practices.
Ohio’s Board of Education adopted a rule in 2013 forbidding restraint and seclusion except where there is an imminent risk of physical harm. But a new report from Disability Rights Ohio says oversight and enforcement of the rule are lacking, putting students at risk.
This newspaper’s investigation found that some area schools are using these methods but not reporting their data to the state, a violation of the Ohio Administrative Code.
The disability group’s report said the Ohio Department of Education “has no system for monitoring schools for compliance of the rule, inadequate reporting and notification of incidents, insufficient recourse for parents and students when the rule has been violated, and no coordinated effort among agencies to thoroughly investigate incidents.”
Per Ohio law, restraint is defined as immobilizing a student or restricting the student’s freedom of movement. Seclusion is involuntary isolation of a student in a space the student is prevented from leaving.
Disability groups, school districts and the state agree that a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which is required by the new rule, helps to lessen the need to restrain students. But there’s a fundamental disagreement about how often restraint and seclusion are needed, and the impact of the techniques.
“The rule requires schools to implement a (PBIS) system,” said Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio. “When that is done with fidelity, it eliminates almost all of the need for more restrictive responses.”
Several local schools disagreed. Centerville Director of Student Services Laura Collier said her schools believe in and use PBIS, but they still have to restrain and seclude students when a situation is unsafe.
“When we’re using it is when we have a student who is so out of hand that there are chairs flying across the room,” Collier said.
Ohio Department of Education officials say the 2013 rule does not give them enforcement authority, but they plan an analysis of restraint and seclusion data, looking for trends, so they can advise schools on limiting the practice.
Stats, special needs
The Montgomery County Educational Service Center, which serves nearly 350 emotionally disturbed and multiple-disability students from 27 school districts, has by far the highest number of restraints and seclusions in the area.
The ESC was second in Ohio in restraints in the 2014-15 school year, with 120 students restrained a total of 1,159 times. It was the state’s runaway leader in seclusions, with 1,382 occurrences involving 149 individual students.
ESC Superintendent Frank DePalma said he’s not defensive about those numbers, saying his staff of teachers, therapists and others use several techniques to de-escalate situations, but still need restraint and seclusion.
“It’s safety first. We take a lot of steps, but we also have some kids who just go off,” DePalma said. “A very small number of students represent over 70 percent of the incidents. We have some students who have a lot of difficulty controlling their behavior. That’s part of the reason they’re with us.”
During our visit to the ESC’s two schools Thursday, two students were sitting with staffers in quiet, dimmed “sensory rooms,” attempting to regain composure.
Two others were taking brief hallway walks with a school employee. Another student had a “physically aggressive” outburst according to DePalma, and was in a seclusion room, where a Moraine police officer was talking to him while blocking the open doorway.
Other local districts that had moderately high numbers of incidents in 2014-15 were Middletown Schools, with 103 restraints and 218 seclusions; Fairfield with 94 and 102; Springfield with 83 and 46; Centerville with 35 and 52; and Kettering with 79 restraints but only eight seclusions.
Middletown Schools spokeswoman Destini Burns echoed many school officials when she said restraint and seclusion “are the very last methods used when dealing with and understanding our children.”
Burns said the district uses positive reinforcement programs to build deeper bonds with students, to help them cope better when disciplinary action is necessary.
In all of those districts, students defined as having disabilities (whether physical, cognitive or behaviorial) made up the majority of student incidents. Disability Rights Ohio’s report says that’s true nationwide.
“According to the United States Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, Ohio children with disabilities account for 14 percent of the school population but account for 80 percent of all restraints,” the report says.
Micah Barcelo, supervisor of educational services for Springfield City Schools, said it’s true that students with emotional or behavioral disabilities may physically act out more often, but that shouldn’t produce a knee-jerk response to restrain. He said almost half of his district’s staff are trained to identify students’ stressors and anxieties, and respond quickly.
“It doesn’t make it OK that that subgroup is restrained more than any other,” Barcelo said. “There are so many steps and interventions that can be applied before it gets to that point of requiring a restraint.”
Lakota Schools spokeswoman Lauren Boettcher said the district’s restraint and seclusion responses are very individualized, and even pre-planned, often involving techniques that are written into a student’s Individual Education Plan.
“Our staff follow very prescriptive processes and guidelines for appropriately handling any situation where harm to a student or their peers is a possible outcome,” Boettcher said. “Expectations are clearly set and involve parents, administrators, teachers and support staff.”
Hildebrant, of Disability Rights Ohio, said the issue of restraining students got a lot more attention years ago when some students died after school restraint situations.
“Kids are still getting injured on a daily basis from restraint in school,” Hildebrant said. “There’s always the danger of injury to the child or the people who are restraining them.”
Ohio schools reported about 350 student injuries from restraints in 2014-15 and another 61 from seclusions. The Madison-Champaign ESC had the most in southwest Ohio with 14, followed by Fairfield with eight and Lakota with seven. The Montgomery County ESC, with its 1,159 restraints, had only three student injuries.
But the more common injuries — 777 statewide — are to staff members trying to restrain or seclude students. The Montgomery ESC had 76 such injuries, followed by Kettering’s 18 and Fairfield’s 13.
At the ESC, seclusion rooms have large foam pads hanging on the wall just outside the doorway. Assistant supervisor Angela Theewis-Sheets said those pads help staffers stand their ground if an out-of-control student is punching or kicking in their direction.
Hildebrant said even when people are prepared, problems can happen.
“It’s not a matter that if we train people to restrain kids appropriately, everything will be fine,” she said. “There are always going to be significant negative consequences to this type of intervention.”
But Centerville’s Collier said negative consequences await if staff don’t step in.
“No one wants to put their hands on a kid,” Collier said. “It’s only used when a kid is going to do bodily harm to himself or another student. It would be a lot worse sometimes if there wasn’t a method in place to safely de-escalate (and others got hurt).”
The deadline for schools to report their 2014-15 data has passed, but state officials admit there were several problems even in Year 2 of the program.
Many schools, including Dayton and Fairborn locally, did not report their data to the state. Springboro, Yellow Springs and Newton schools also don’t show up in the preliminary spreadsheet.
ODE spokeswoman Kim Norris said other districts reported some of the 96 columns of data improperly.
That surprised Barcelo, who said Springfield is “tenacious” about reporting incidents precisely, so it can analyze its own data and adjust training to solve any continuing problems.
Fairborn officials said they tracked 2014-15 data, but failed to send their survey to the state. In Dayton Public Schools, Director of Safety and Security Jamie Bullens took over restraint and seclusion reporting this school year. He said when he looked for last year’s reporting, he saw the district had lapsed.
“Even though the board adopted a policy, we didn’t have any processes in place last year to capture those (restraint, seclusion and injury) numbers,” Bullens said. “We’re doing a hand count of the numbers for this year, and we’re working to automate a process for 2016-17.”
Disability Rights Ohio called it “a real problem” that Dayton’s numbers are simply unknown two years into the program.
While DPS has a Positive School Climate program that aligns with PBIS, Bullens said the district’s No. 1 responsibility is the safety of everyone in its schools, not necessarily reducing restraint and seclusion.
Bullens said he’s been involved in situations where an adult’s mere presence or voice calmed a student outburst, and others where four adults were needed to physically gain control.
“I don’t think there’s a cookie-cutter answer for every child,” he said. “There are going to be children who need a bear hug (to restrain), and some just need a little attention.”
Staff Writer Michael D. Clark contributed to this report.
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