State watchdog group questions Iliamna Elementary 'safe rooms'

mtheriault@adn.comOctober 5, 2013 

No parents want their child to end up at Mt. Iliamna Elementary.

Mt. I, as it's known in the Anchorage School District, is the end-of-the-road for elementary school children whose behavior is so violent and disruptive they've been kicked out of other schools.

Once there, the district hopes, children with severe behavioral disorders can learn coping skills under the supervision of highly trained teachers, counselors and aides. Parents can stop getting daily calls to pick up their child at the office because of a violent episode. The district can fulfill its obligation to give every student a free public education. And everyone can stay safe.

To that end, Mt. Iliamna is the only elementary school in the district with a student-teacher ratio of 3 to 1. It is also the only elementary school in the district with built-in "safe rooms," empty 8-foot-square cells that lock from the outside, designed to contain children in an out-of-control rage.

But the state's watchdog group for people with disabilities says children are being put in Mt. Iliamna safe rooms, a practice called "seclusion," far too often and for the wrong reasons. In September, the Disability Law Center made public a report that concluded the seclusion and restraint of children at the school constituted neglect.

"We're talking about 60 kids (being put in the safe room) over 850 times in a school year," said law center investigator Ron Cowan. "That's an awful lot of times kids are being put in restraint or seclusion."

In a letter to Mt. Iliamna parents, the Anchorage School District denied that children were neglected but said it has undertaken its own investigation into the school's practices.

The report has already reopened a heated debate among parents of children in the district's special needs program. Some see the Disability Law Center report as an attack on devoted educators who are often the targets of assault themselves. Others say it exposes a practice that's harming the district's most vulnerable students.

All sides agree on one thing: When it comes to how best to educate children whose disabilities lead to violent behavior, there are few easy answers.

A DAY AT MT. I

Mt. Iliamna Elementary is housed in a tan cinder block building deep inside Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, an unfortunate quirk of real estate availability, according to the district. To get there you need a military pass, which parents can apply for, or a sponsor.

At any given time, between 40 and 60 children attend. Nearly all are boys. Some years the student body has included only one girl, program coordinator Kelly Scott said.

The students are as young as kindergartners and as old as fifth-graders. They come from upper-middle class, two-parent households and from foster homes or institutions.

Some are so bright they lug 3-inch-thick fantasy novels to class. Others may never learn to read. All have some documented disability, ranging from autism spectrum disorder to fetal alcohol syndrome to bipolar disorder.

Classrooms hold no more than 10 and as few as three children. In some there are as many adults as kids. The staff-student ratio at the school is low so students can reap the benefits of individual attention, Scott said.

Students come here because they haven't been able to successfully function in a regular neighborhood school population or special education classroom, said Linda Carlson, the assistant superintendent of instructional support for the district.

The placement is not supposed to be permanent. Students need one academic quarter of non-violent behavior to "transition" back to their neighborhood school, program coordinator Scott said. Some students can stay for years.

Inside, the school has the trappings of a typical elementary: a janitor the kids love to chat with, painted zombie pumpkin portraits on the walls, beanbag chairs in the classrooms, detailed charts explaining rewards for good behavior (pizza parties included).

Teachers and aides often work one-on-one with students. They say they get to know them like family members.

Still, the potential for a sudden, violent outburst constantly hangs over the classrooms and hallways. On a recent school day a child in a classroom full of boys started to lose control.

The teacher ordered a "room clear," directing other children to leave the room. The school nurse showed up to put an arm around a student who said he had been hit by the raging child. So did an "intervention coach" trained in de-escalating crisis situations, and the principal.

The boy yelled at the top of his lungs, moved to throw a potted plant and tried to flip a desk.

And that's where the safe rooms come in, according to the district. The rooms themselves are empty, with hard linoleum floors, featureless white walls and cameras mounted on the ceilings. Two have electronic locking systems that can be controlled from the outside.

Out-of-control children who can't be calmed using other techniques are escorted -- which can mean carried -- to them and locked in if necessary, Scott said.

The intervention coach and another staff member must watch through a window. Most children stay in the safe room for less than 10 minutes, according to Scott. The safe room gives the child a place to get himself back under control while protecting staff and students from injury, she said.

Staffers at the school have had jaws dislocated by students. They've been bitten and punched and kicked.

"We know that's a risk," Scott said. "But we love working with these kids. We really want to help them."

The child in a rage wasn't taken to the safe room. Staff were able to "de-escalate" him and get him back to class.

Still, by 11:45 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, two children had been sent to the safe rooms.

THE INVESTIGATION

The Disability Law Center's investigation into Mt. Iliamna started with a trickle of phone calls from unhappy parents who said their children were being sent to the safe room almost daily.

Every state, by federal law, must have a protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities. The Disability Law Center, an independent nonprofit, is the designated agency for Alaska. That status gives it special rights to collect information that wouldn't be available to the public. An initial report, released in November 2012, elicited no immediate response from the School District, Cowan said, and complaints kept rolling in.

So starting last November, Cowan undertook an investigation that examined every visit to a safe room during the 2012-2013 school year. He says he counted a total of 879 instances.

The School District's written policy allows the use of "seclusion" only when necessary to protect the child or others from injury or to protect property from serious damage. The definition of "seclusion" doesn't include time-outs, a student voluntarily entering a safe room, detention or circumstances when a student is not alone in a room or prevented from leaving.

Cowan says he interviewed staffers and parents, analyzed student files and watched video captured by the school. He says he found differing interpretations among Mt. Iliamna staffers of what the district's definition of seclusion meant.

"I believed it was clear that seclusion was being used far more frequently than appeared to be appropriate," sometimes for less serious behavior, he said. He also found inconsistencies with record-keeping related to use of the rooms.

Most disturbing to him was surveillance video that showed a 5-year-old child being carried into a safe room.

"Kid's not as tall as the doorknob. He's plopped down. Door's locked. He's yelling and screaming and kicking and begging and crying," he said. "It's just very disturbing, anytime you have the disparity between the individual in restraint and seclusion and the person putting them there in size and strength."

A district investigation into seclusion and restraint at Mt. Iliamna is under way, according to special education head Carlson. A report is expected to be released in a few weeks.

Changes have already been made at the school, including better record-keeping for safe room visits. But there are no immediate plans to close the rooms, according to the district.

Cowan says the fact remains that children are spending too much time in seclusion.

"When you're in a seclusion room you're not getting educated. Which is why we go to school to begin with."

NATIONWIDE DEBATE

Are seclusion rooms and restraints appropriate in public schools?

More state legislatures are answering no.

A 2009 report by the federal Government Accountability Office found widespread misuse of restraint and seclusion, sometimes leading to deaths. Texas and California schools recorded a combined 33,095 instances of forced restraint or seclusion in a single school year, the report said.

Since then a flurry of states, including Kansas, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, Wisconsin and Oregon, have passed laws regulating or banning seclusion and restraint in public schools.

An Oregon judge in September ordered a Portland school to remove its remaining safe rooms to comply with a new law banning them.

Some in Alaska want the same here.

Ashley Dunks is a mother of three who started the Facebook group Ban Seclusion Rooms in Alaska. She says her son, who has autism, was secluded against her wishes at an elementary school other than Mt. Iliamna. The School District says it uses "time-out rooms" at a handful of other schools but doesn't use lockable safe rooms.

Her son was so traumatized by the experience, Dunks said, he's seeing a psychiatrist and she's moved all of her kids out of the district. She has asked Rep. Charisse Millett to introduce a bill in the Legislature to ban the use of the rooms. State law bars corporal punishment in schools but allows "reasonable and necessary" physical restraint in emergencies. It says nothing about seclusion.

"There's nothing saving children from being put in these rooms without their parents even knowing," she said.

Since she started the Facebook page, Dunks said, "I've had families from Fairbanks to Homer call me and write me letters."

If safe rooms were banned, the problem of violent behavior would remain, Scott said. Even the best staff can't prevent every outburst, she said.

So intervention coaches would likely have to use more restraint holds instead, she said. That would mean more physical, hands-on holding down kids as they rage, which might lead to higher injury rates for teachers and children.

PARENT REACTION

Parent reaction to the law center report has been mixed.

Some current and former Mt. Iliamna parents have taken to online message boards to defend the school, which they say helped their children. Others say the school and district must be held accountable for the report's conclusions.

BreeAnn Davis, a former board member of the Stone Soup Group who is earning an associate's degree in disability services, knows her way around the world of special education. Her son, who has been diagnosed with autism, attended Mt. Iliamna for some of kindergarten and most of first grade after being kicked out of two neighborhood schools.

He is one of the children whose case studies were detailed in the law center report.

Davis says her son, a bright second-grader who loves wearing bow ties and playing with Pokemon cards, was put into safe rooms or in empty classrooms over and over, against her explicit wishes. Video surveillance documented an aide carrying him in a way that Davis says goes against district policies. She and her husband took their son out of Mt. Iliamna at the end of last school year. "He was spending his entire day in a safe room or a classroom by himself," she said.

Davis said she's not opposed to safe rooms. She just wants the district to answer for what she says are violations of its own policies.

"A lot of people are making this about seclusion and restraint," she said. "For me, it is not. That's a separate conversation and one we absolutely should have. But first, the School District has to be accountable for its policy."

Debbi Brooks' son attended Mt. Iliamna for most of his elementary school years. Brooks' son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, spent grades two to five at the school. He often ended up in the safe room, she said.

The law center's report didn't take into account some of the realities of a school that groups kids who act out violently, Brooks said.

"There isn't an alternative," she said. "You don't let a kid trash your room or hurt his peers." The safe room may be the only option, she said.

"(The report's assumption) is that, you know, kids are spending too much time in there," she said. "Well, they probably are. But it's still a place where they need it."

There were lots of good things about Mt. Iliamna, Brooks said. Her son, who loves computers, statistics and his neighborhood friends, liked the physical education program. There were cross-country ski outings on base and barbecues. But last year things did seem more out of control than usual, she said. Some experienced aides and teachers left.

"They had consistency before and they lost it," she said.

In a perfect world, both Davis and Brooks say the ideal might be a one-on-one aide who would follow a child through his or her education.

That's not financially feasible, district administrator Carlson said.

Whatever the future holds, the issue isn't going away. More students nationally are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities that can lead to out-of-control behavior.

Brooks' son has now moved on to the Whaley School, the middle and high school version of Mt. Iliamna Elementary. He had been in seclusion that day, she said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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