Area responds to restraint data; kids with disabilities need better support

Questions and concerns emerged soon after it was reported that a single student was restrained or secluded 858 times in one school year. The number of incidents to this student — who has parents in Darien but attends a residential school outside of town — represented 96% of the total number of restraints and seclusions reported by Darien Schools during the 2012-13 school year.

Concerns over whether the student was excessively restrained or whether these restraints were necessary because of the student’s needs became a topic of discussion at The Darien Times website. It’s unclear under which disability the student receives special education services, but sources close to the situation say the student has autism.

Sarah Eagan, the head of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, said that issues surrounding children with complex disabilities is still vastly misunderstood by parents and educators.

“I think teachers, administrators and parents are struggling to meet the needs of kids with complex psychiatric and neurodevelopmental problems,” Eagan told The Darien Times. “It’s a challenge for all of us.”

Autistic students are restrained or secluded more than children with other disabilities, according to data from the state Department of Education. Federal legislation is pending that would eliminate all uses of seclusions and limit restraints to extreme circumstances.

Some children are placed in a locked room alone as part of a behavior plan as per their individualized education plans, or IEPs. In Darien, this happened 10 times to three children in 2012-13, the same year Darien violated state and federal special education laws.

Secluding children as a behavior improvement strategy is not backed by research, Eagan said.

Restraints and seclusions “are not evidence-based interventions,” she said, citing state statute, which requires that IEPs include programs that are backed by strong research and evidence of efficacy.

“We’re momentarily containing a problem that we don’t what else to do about it,” Eagan said.

Proponents of seclusion say the room offers children a place to calm down safely and out of contact with peers. 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 this opinion is what prevents progress in this area.

“The biggest reason this continues to occur is that somebody thinks children need or deserve to be treated this way,” Marshall said.

The federal government’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health found that restraint and seclusion often worsen trauma for a child, and can lead to a sense of loss of dignity and other psychological harm. According to the Child Welfare League of America, restraint and seclusion can also “severely traumatize individuals and result in lasting adverse psychological effects.”

“Individuals who have been restrained and secluded describe these events as punitive and aversive, leaving lingering psychological scars,” the organization stated in 2004.

Dr. Wanda Mohr, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, argues that restraints that happen during a psychiatric hospitalization often lead to recurrent nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidance behaviors, enhanced “startle response,” and mistrust of mental health professionals. These effects can last for years after the incident, according to Mohr, who discussed her findings in her 2003 paper, “Adverse Effects Associated with Physical Restraint.”

Simsbury resident Shannan Knall has a son with autism and told The Times that all behavior problems are a form of communication, and the intended message is often difficult to interpret.

“There has not been an understanding of what is causing the behavior,” Knall said, referring to instances where children are excessively or needlessly restrained or secluded. Knall was part of a group of parents who spearheaded a statewide campaign to require schools to report incidents of restraint and seclusion to the state. This has been a requirement for the last three years.

Stacie Fernandes trains all Darien Schools’ staff on the proper procedures for restraint and seclusion. There were no injuries reported to the state last year in Darien. This includes the student who was restrained or secluded 858 times while attending a private residential school last year, according to a state report.

Lisbeth Ehrlich, a Darien parent of a child with autism, said that while the high number of restraints and seclusions appears excessive, there are many factors that numbers do not consider.

“The child could have been restrained almost constantly at the beginning of the placement and then as they found the solution, it could have tailed off,” she said. “But obviously, I don’t have access to this information. If the family has been trying to get the school to address this problem and they aren’t, that is a different matter…”

Ehrlich said her son was “repeatedly improperly restrained in Darien,” but since moving him to another school, he has not been restrained once.

“It is heartbreaking, but you must consider that some children are so severely disabled or disturbed that restraint is necessary,” she said. “These are kids who hit themselves until they bleed, tear their skin off, bite themselves, pull their hair out, it is truly horrific.

“I hope for the [above student’s] family’s sake this is not the case, but if it is it puts the use of restraints in a whole new light,” she continued.

Kathryn Meyer, a lawyer with the Bridgeport-based Center for Children’s Advocacy, said she beleives more kids are restrained or secluded than reported in Connecticut.

“I feel like they’re white-washed,” Meyer said of the numbers. “They might report it as part of a behavior plan, but I can’t caution enough the under-reporting of all these numbers.”

Of the 219 public school districts that reported incidents to the state last year, 43 claimed to have zero incidents, including large districts such as Danbury and Hartford. New Canaan reported only one restraint and no seclusions during the 2012-13 school year.

The Times’ reporting on the high number of restraints and seclusions to a single student was called into question by some readers who claim people might be able to identify the student through the details provided.

Information regarding this student came from the district administration through John Verre, the special education ombudsman. When asked if the information violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, Verre said the district’s counsel, Shipman & Goodwin, approved providing this newspaper with the information it used to report the story.

Additionally, only educational agencies can violate FERPA.

Comment concerns?

William Ahearn, a board director at the New England Center for Children, did not respond to requests for comment. C.J. Volpe, communications director for Autism Speaks, said that his group does “not have someone available to comment for this story.”

The group’s Connecticut division is headed by Judith Ursitti, who shares the same last name as Allison Ursitti, an employee of McDowell Jewett Communications. Darien Schools has paid this public relations firm more than $42,000 through December 2013 to help the district manage its public image. Judith Ursitti did not respond to requests for comment.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, this newspaper requested all communications between McDowell and the district. The district’s lawyers denied this request, claiming it was exempt from disclosure under the lawyer-client privilege.

The Times appealed this decision and a hearing with the state Freedom of Information Commission is pending.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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