Student held down, locked away, 858 times in a year

Many people will live their entire lives without being restrained from moving their bodies, and never being held in a confined space, unable to leave, for a long period of time. But one child of a Darien family experienced these incidents 858 times at the hands of an out-of-district school, according to information provided by district administration.

There were 895 restraint and seclusion incidents last year — the same year Darien broke federal special education law. Nine children experienced 37 incidents, and one child was restrained or secluded 858 times.

This child attends a residential school outside of Darien, according to John Verre, the special education ombudsman, who was responding to questions about this high number of restraints and seclusions.

“This student engaged in aggressive and self-injurious behaviors,” Verre stated in an email.

Being restrained or secluded 858 times means that child averaged 2.4 incidents per day over a 365-day period. This student likely attends school in another state since in-state private schools report these figures separately while out-out-state schools report as part of the home district’s figures.

It’s unclear what disability this child receives services under, but sources close to the situation say the child has autism.

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a group that works to protect the civil rights of children with disabilities, said a child being restrained or secluded 858 times in a single year “is criminal.”

“Something is not going right in that treatment environment,” Marshall said.

Andrew Feinstein, a special education attorney, agreed, saying that 10 restraints in a single year would be a sign the behavior plan wasn’t working.

Eight hundred fifty-eight restraints and seclusions “in a year indicate massive incompetence and willful ignorance on the part of the school system,” Feinstein said.


State data showed that more than 40% of emergency restraints in Connecticut involved autistic children, who were also involved in over 49% of emergency seclusions. Virtually all children who were restrained or secluded last year were in special education. Those who were not had parents who had agreed to have their children evaluated for special education.

It’s unclear if children not in special education were restrained, as schools are not required to report that data. Still, the high number of restraints and seclusions on a single student shows districts continue to use these methods when alternative, non-physical options are available, said advocate Marshall.

“Whether the child has autism or not — many schools don’t use restraints and seclusions at all,” she said.

Marshall recalled having been in situations where children had to be held to prevent them from hurting themselves, but if those situations continue, it’s a sign that something else is wrong. The schools should reexamine how they are dealing with a child who must be repeatedly restrained, rather than consistently resorting to these measures, she said.

Darien mother Lisbeth Ehrlich sued Darien several years ago after she learned that her child, who has autism, was routinely restrained and secluded, yet she had been told her child was doing fine.

“I told them I’m having a hard time with him going to school and I’m being told he’s doing really well,” Ehrlich said. “Then I see him face down on the floor like he’s about to be handcuffed.”

She was told her son didn’t want to go to school because he suffered from separation anxiety from leaving his mother.

“No, he doesn’t want to go to school because you’re torturing him,” she said. Ehrlich lost her suit against the district. Her son now attends a special public school in another town, where she said he is doing well, enjoys going to school, and has not been restrained or secluded once.

“All we did was change schools,” she said. “We didn’t do anything different at home.”

State report

The state’s annual report noted that many districts experienced a sharp increase in restraints or seclusions last year because of one student.

“For example, in one organization, 717 reported restraints were for one student,” the report stated. “These incidents were typically of short duration and due to student’s self-injurious behavior.”

A restraint is defined as “any mechanical or personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the free movement of a child’s arms, legs or head.” It does not include briefly holding a child for calming or comfort, or other actions that don’t restrict the child.

A seclusion means “the confinement of a child in a room, whether alone or with staff supervision, in a manner that prevents a child from leaving,” according to the state. This does not include time outs or in-school suspensions.

Some children are secluded as part of their individualized education plan, and not because of an emergency. This happened 10 times to three students in Darien last year, while statewide there were 7,741 seclusions of this type among 529 students, with 23 injuries.

The number of statewide seclusions via an IEP dropped by half compared to the year before, although the number of emergency seclusions doubled from the year before, state data showed.

In total, 191 students were restrained for more than an hour last year, and 518 were secluded for over an hour. This does not include the 220 seclusions per a child’s IEP last year that lasted more than an hour.

Nineteen students were restrained more than 100 times last year, and 13 were secluded more than 100 times.

Stacie Fernandes trains all Darien staff on interventions and how to restrain or seclude a child in a safe, legally-compliant manner. When she saw the high numbers for last year, she knew it couldn’t have happened in-district. Still, the number was high.

“I was floored when I saw that,” Fernandes told The Darien Times.

Twenty staff members administered restraints last year, and 12 monitored. Nine administered seclusions, and 14 monitored. All were certified by Fernandes in PMT, which is physical and psychological management training, according to the district.

Fernandes said restraints and seclusions are mostly used in emergency situations when the child could harm himself or others.

“The majority of interventions do not involve getting to hands-on” methods, she said. “The reason for having a [behavior analysis] plan is to figure out what’s setting the child off.”

Many times, things such as fluorescent lights or high-pitched sounds can trigger a physical response by a child with autism, Fernandes said, but determining each child’s trigger can be tricky and is often changing.

“I have people say to me, ‘I am not touching a kid’,” Fernandes said. “I tell them, ‘That’s fine. If you ever come across a child that is hurting himself and you don’t put your hands on them to keep them safe, and they get hurt, then you’re in trouble.’”

Denise Marshall of the advocacy group agreed that avoiding physical contact is difficult, but she does not see restraints or seclusions as a long-term strategy for any child.

“The single most common reason this continues to occur is that somebody thinks children have a diagnosis and need or deserve to be treated this way,” Marshall said, adding that “seclusion is the worst form of torture” and does nothing but make problems worse.

While Fernandes agreed that these methods are not long-term strategies, she said secluding children offers an opportunity for them to calm down. She also lamented many school districts’ decisions to eliminate padded rooms used for seclusion. In Darien, most seclusions happen in rooms that aren’t being used, and padded rooms are only used when the child can’t be kept safe in another area, Fernandes said.

“If you use a padded room, you don’t have to touch a child,” Fernandes said. “If they’re in a state of throwing things, going after people, you don’t have to touch them.”

Someone is always monitoring the children who are secluded, Fernandes added.

District info

Middlesex Middle School had the highest number of restraints and seclusions at 15 incidents. Hindley and Royle schools each had one incident, and Tokeneke and the high school each had three. Holmes School had none.

Ox Ridge, where the Therapeutic Learning Center is held, had seven incidents. Children aged 7 to 17 were restrained or secluded in Darien last year, data showed.

Ox Ridge had more special education problems than any other school in town last year, according to the state’s Bureau of Special Education. During the 2012-13 school year, there were nine filings for due process hearings made by Ox Ridge parents of children with disabilities.

For comparison, Royle, Holmes and Hindley each had one and Tokeneke had two complaints last year. There were more complaints at Ox Ridge last year than there were in the entire district the year before.

Parents also claimed that Luke Forshaw, Ox Ridge principal, improperly handled bullying incidents that targeted special education students. One parent said that Forshaw took her child who had been allegedly bullied and placed the child in a room with the bully. Another case involved Forshaw ignoring the request of a district-paid psychiatrist, which led to a child becoming hospitalized for 10 days due to anxiety, the parent said.

In a desk audit investigation last year, the state Department of Education found that Ox Ridge did not have procedures or policies in place for handling bullying, despite the school board voting to approve an updated bullying policy in 2011.

School-to-prison pipeline

Many children with disabilities develop anti-social behavior if they don’t get the services they need. A 1937 study called “New Light on Delinquency and its Treatment,” showed a strong connection between disengaged children with learning disabilities and the development of behavior problems, yet problems managing behavior remain over 70 years later.

Additionally, it’s estimated that anywhere from 50% to 80% of prison inmates live with some form of learning disability, according to the Department of Justice. Mass school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who were receiving special education services, including Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, and Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter.

Children with disabilities are also two to four times more likely to develop a mental illness, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Teenager John Odgren was sentenced to life in a Massachusetts prison after he stabbed to death a classmate he did not know. This happened when Odgren, who has Asperger syndrome, an autism disorder, was moved into a public school and was left without an aide, against his parents wishes, according to court records.

Possible legislation

Connecticut’s U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is co-sponsoring a bill called the Keeping Students Safe Act, which would ban the use of seclusion in “locked, unattended rooms or enclosures,” and prohibit almost all uses of restraint.

An investigation headed by the bill’s other sponsor, U.S. Sen. Bill Harkin of Iowa, found that there is no evidence that restraining or secluding a child “provides any educational or therapeutic benefit.”

“In fact, use of either seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses significant physical and psychological danger to students,” the report stated.

A 2009 study by the National Disability Rights Network reported a wide variety of injuries and deaths happened because of seclusions and restraints. Last year in Connecticut, there were 378 reported injuries, with 10 of those being considered serious, which means the injuries required medical attention beyond first aid. No injuries were reported in Darien.

Even in instances where injuries do not occur, psychological damage often happens, Harkin’s investigation found. Marshall said for nonverbal students, this damage is often worse since it doesn’t get communicated.

“These practices provide no educational benefit, yet unsupervised seclusion and physical restraints are being used thousands of time each year against our nation’s school children,” Harkin said in a press release.

Harkin has compared seclusion rooms to the prison cells in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as they are similar in size and carry the same minimal amenities.

A teacher’s aide who has worked with special needs children for five years in several towns other than Darien said that training for teachers and others is often limited to “don’t get yourself hurt.”

“I was taking a preschool or kindergarten age student to the bathroom, and he had a meltdown,” she said. “He started running around, kicking and then running into the wall. He was going to hurt himself or me, so I bear-hugged him and fell to the floor and held him until he calmed down.

“I probably could’ve gotten in trouble for that. I still hurt on my hip if I stand too long… The teacher laughed when I told her what happened. ‘Yeah, he does that’, she told me.

“It’s scary, and there’s just no training,” she said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.


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