The Anchorage School District illegally locked students with disabilities in seclusion rooms and restrained them in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.
The Justice Department announced a settlement with the district in which school officials agreed to end the practice of using seclusion rooms and to reform its restraint practices, following an investigation initiated in 2020.
The Anchorage investigation is the latest of several across the country. The settlement follows similar agreements with districts in Florida, Iowa, Maryland and Indiana.
The investigation covered three school years from 2018 to 2021. During that time, the district reported secluding or restraining 227 students in nearly 4,000 incidents. The vast majority of those students — 82% — were students with disabilities, who make up only 15% of the district’s student population, according to a letter from the Justice Department to the school district.
The district’s use of restraint and seclusion resulted in students missing large amounts of instructional time, the letter said. Additionally, some students subjected to prolonged and repeated seclusion engaged in self-harm and expressed suicidal ideation while secluded, the letter said.
The Anchorage investigation focused on five schools, including the Whaley School, a special-education school exclusively serving students with disabilities. It also examined the four elementary schools — Baxter, Kasuun, Lake Hood and William Tyson — that housed the district’s behavior support program, which is designed to serve students who have what the district calls “challenging behaviors.”
When asked Thursday, district officials said that seclusion rooms are used in other schools to a lesser extent, but did not name the schools that employ the practice or the extent to which seclusion is used in each individual school. The schools at the center of the investigation have purpose-built isolation rooms that lock from the outside, with a camera installed within the room, district officials said.
District spokesperson Lisa Miller said in an email that the Whaley School and Kasuun, Tyson and Lake Hood elementary schools are the only district sites with purpose-built seclusion rooms.
According to the Justice Department, despite state law and the district’s own policy, and contrary to generally accepted practice, the district did not limit its use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations.
In a letter to staff and families Thursday, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said the district’s goal is “to replace seclusion rooms with better alternatives that more appropriately support students in distress.”
”While we disagree that anyone at ASD discriminated against students with disabilities, we agree it is time for a change,” Bryantt said in the letter.
Bryantt, who began his tenure as Anchorage superintendent in July, said that by the time he had joined the district, a settlement agreement between the district and the Department of Justice had already been drafted. Bryantt did not know what prompted the investigation in Anchorage, but said it is one of more than 40 larger districts facing Justice Department investigations.
The Justice Department settlement comes less than a decade after Alaska lawmakers passed a bill to establish statewide standards for the use of physical restraint and seclusion on students in public schools. Before that law went into effect in 2014, schools were left to formulate their own policies.
[Read the letter from the Justice Department to the Anchorage School District outlining the investigation:]
The law was passed a year after the Anchorage-based Disability Law Center argued that the Anchorage district was restraining and secluding students far too often at Mt. Iliamna Elementary, a school for children with serious behavioral or emotional problems. Mt. Iliamna is now closed.
In 2016, a mother sued the Anchorage School District over the restraint and seclusion of her disabled son, saying the district failed to follow its own rules.
Neither the district nor the state Department of Education’s office of special education are aware of current lawsuits or complaints against the district regarding its seclusion and restraint policies, Miller said.
The settlement agreement between the district and the Justice Department dictates that the district will end the practice of secluding students in all schools — or locking them alone in a room — by the beginning of the next school year. The district also committed to ending the seclusion practice in district schools, except those that cater to students with special needs, by March 20 of this year.
Additionally, the district committed to hiring a new administrator to oversee restraint practices, and create classroom plans for every school investigated by the department that will discourage the use of physical restraint and ensure teachers use de-escalation techniques, among other requirements.
District officials said an assistant director of intensive behavior support, Alison Lovelace, has already been hired to fill the role.
Jenny Knutson, senior director for mental health in the district, said the district regularly offers de-escalation training to staff, but staffing shortages in the district and a high number of substitute teachers have hampered staff’s ability to respond to student needs and avoid the use of harmful practices.
“With staffing shortages and substitutes, we’re really having to come and train more people, and we have difficulty with staffing sometimes. So really, this is a community issue,” Knutson said, adding that the settlement includes increased mental health training for school staff. “Schools are reflective of what our community is experiencing right now.”
Bryantt said the settlement has no monetary element, but several of the requirements detailed in the settlement will entail costs to the district, including hiring the new administrator and repurposing the seclusion rooms for different uses.
“Regardless of the settlement, the vision is to move in a new direction and to move away from the practices of seclusion and to dramatically reform restraints. So we need to prioritize investing in training, and whatever it takes to ensure that staff understand what their new tools in their toolbox will be to help students in distress,” said Bryantt. “If there needs to be a substantial investment to go in the right direction, we’ll do whatever it takes.”
Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said that eliminating seclusion rooms is just one element of a broader issue exacerbated by student behaviors that have gotten more challenging since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to move to remote learning for several months.
“The essence of what’s really important is that there’s an escalation of behaviors in our schools and our students and staff are at risk, and we need more, better tools to support those students who have escalating behaviors,” said Aist, who leads a union representing more than 3,000 teachers and other personnel in the Anchorage school district.
Part of the solution, he said, is to address the school’s staffing levels, which have remained challengingly low since the beginning of the year, with dozens of open positions.
“When we talk about supporting the students, supporting these teachers and supporting the learning environments, we have to remember that that takes staff, and we have a staffing shortage,” he said.
Classes in Anchorage schools are forced to be evacuated multiple times a week due to students’ behaviors, Aist said. Teachers have been instructed by the district to avoid physically restraining students, but educators don’t always have better tools to deal with student behaviors.
“If you’re not allowed to restrain a student who is being violent or breaking computers, or potentially harming others or causing others to have to evacuate spaces — what are those other alternatives? And that’s the frustrating part we’re having as educators. There are no other alternatives. The alternative is to let the child destroy the environment,” Aist said.
Anchorage School Board President Margo Bellamy said in a statement the board “will lend full support to the superintendent and administration as steps are taken to address the findings and modify District policies.”
“Seclusion and restraint represents risk to the staff and risk to the students, and it makes sense to me that we’re going to try to move away from that,” said board member Andy Holleman. “The upshot is that we will have to do more training and prepare staff to deal with these situations. And hopefully, that’s something that we will do to a wide range of staff so that situations don’t escalate to that point to begin with, and there’s always somebody in close proximity that understands the boundaries and the best ways of dealing with students who are temporarily out of control.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a settlement agreement dictates that ASD will end the practice of secluding students in all schools by the end of the next school year. The practice will end by the beginning of the next school year.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.