Feb 15, 2015 12:56 PM

Stories of trauma in Va. prompt crackdown on seclusion rooms

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Carson Luke still has nightmares about the time four years ago when he was in second grade and school staff locked him inside a room, his mother said. He broke his hand when the door was closing and somehow broke his foot.

Carson, who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had had an aggressive outburst at a school for the disabled, so he was taken to the "quiet room," his mother said.

"That's code for a concrete room with deadbolts that looks like it's out of an old Russian prison," said Carson's mother, Heather Luke.

The use of seclusion rooms, as they are known, is contentious, but they are widely used across the country. Because of stories like Carson's, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to rein in the use of seclusion and restraint as methods of controlling children in public schools.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is expected to soon sign the bill into law, making the state the 33rd to govern the use of seclusion and restraint in schools by law or regulation.

Critics say such techniques are almost always unnecessary to keep order in the classroom and are actually counterproductive, exposing kids to physical and emotional injury and long-term trauma.

According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, the school Carson went to used seclusion 559 times and restraint 177 times in 2011, the year Carson was injured.

The new Virginia legislation requires the state Board of Education to develop statewide regulations governing the use of seclusion and restraint. It was passed over the objections of lobbyists for school boards and principals who said it would allow school administrators too little discretion.

Seclusion and restraint "can be an appropriate and necessary technique to utilize in order to avoid dangerous situations and to maintain order in the public schools," attorney Kathleen Mehfoud wrote on behalf of Virginia school boards and superintendents.

The legislation was recommended by the Virginia Commission on Youth, which has studied the issue over the past year. The commission received more than 60 public comments, some from parents describing abusive treatment of their children at school.

The mother of an autistic child described how he was held down face first on a concrete floor by five adults until he had a seizure, wet himself and passed out from exhaustion.

The mother of another disabled child told of visiting her son's school and discovering he had been strapped into a chair facing a blank wall for a "time-out."

In many cases, the parents said they weren't told when the methods were used on their children.

In almost all cases, the complaints involved children with disabilities.

Nationally, according to the commission, while students with disabilities make up just 12 percent of all students, they represent 75 percent of those physically restrained and 58 percent of those secluded.

There have been repeated attempts in Congress over the past five years to establish nationwide standards, but they have gone nowhere.

A 2014 survey found that 32 of Virginia's 133 school systems had no guidelines on how or whether the methods should be used.

The new legislation requires that the Virginia regulations be consistent with 15 principles developed by the U.S. Department of Education.

According to those principles:

Seclusion and restraint should not be used except in situations where the child's behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to himself or others and other interventions are ineffective.

Teachers and school staff should be trained on safe use of the techniques and on alternative measures.

When seclusion and restraint are used, parents should be notified as soon as possible.

The Luke family now lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and Carson attends a school where seclusion and restraint are almost never used.

"His aggressive tendencies have almost been completely extinguished," Heather Luke said. "The progress he's made has been remarkable.

"His physical wounds have healed. The emotional ones are still with us."


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