Sunday, September 21, 2008

‘Chill room’ leads Block Island superintendent to give up special education role

07:16 PM EDT on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

In the aftermath of a simmering controversy over the creation of a locked isolation room in the basement of the Block Island School, Supt. Leslie A. Ryan has resigned as the district’s special-education director.

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“As we know, it was wrong to put locks on the chill room,” she said Monday at a School Committee meeting packed with supporters and critics. It was her first public acknowledgement that she was responsible for creating the room.

Ryan, who had doubled as special-education director since 2006, apologized for what she characterized as a painful episode for the island community and said she has always kept the children’s best interests at heart.

She said she was not aware that the room ran afoul of state regulations involving the restraint of students. And, she said, she made the decision to use it during a crisis situation.

She said her resignation was necessary to establish “clear accountability” by separating the special-education director position from that of the superintendent. She will continue as superintendent, but will relinquish her special-education duties as soon as a part-time replacement is hired.

While acknowledging her role in creating the room, Ryan did not disclose to the parents and staff at the meeting that her earlier, repeated representations that the room had been developed in consultation with Bradley Hospital were untrue. She also did not acknowledge that the district had never prepared a written crisis-intervention plan for the student who had been locked in the room, as she earlier told other island officials.

Those disclosures, however, were outlined in a Sept. 2 letter sent to the state Department of Education and the state attorney general’s office. The letter, written by Denise Myers, the school district’s lawyer, was sent to clarify misinformation given to the two agencies earlier.

The existence of the isolation room was first made public by The Providence Journal on June 14, just as the school was closing for the summer. The Journal inquired after receiving an anonymous DVD showing a corridor leading to Room 20, showing a door with two bolts and a hole where a doorknob should be. Inside, one window is boarded up with plywood, and there are pillows and blankets in a jumble on the floor. A letter accompanying the video wondered whether this room was being used for “unruly students.”

Ryan released a terse statement denying the use of any “archaic practices” involving students. She refused a reporter’s request to see the room, and also refused to answer questions about how the room came to be or how it was used.

Police Chief Vincent Carlone, who took a reporter to see the room, said Ryan told him the room had been developed in consultation with Bradley, an East Providence hospital specializing in children with emotional, mental and behavioral challenges.

Bradley officials have repeatedly denied involvement. In July, a hospital spokeswoman said that someone from Bradley consulted with the school early last year about the needs of one student, but did not provide recommendations on the design or development of a specific behavior room.

As the controversy grew, the School Committee hired consultants, who reported publicly late last month that the room violated the state fire code because its door could be bolted from the outside. It also violated state education regulations because staff could not observe students at all times through the small window in the door.

The consultants also reported, for the first time, that the room was used for more than one student and on more than one occasion. They said the room was used for a while as a voluntary “chill out” room for students. At some point, its use became “more restrictive” to handle an overly aggressive boy. They also said that a girl was sent to the room for “undesired behavior.”

After the first story by The Journal, the state Department of Education directed Block Island officials to report, as required by regulations, on any time a student had been physically restrained.

Ryan responded with details of one incident, last Nov. 30, that “required temporary use of a latch” because a student was “attacking staff and trying to punch through a glass door.”

At the School Committee meeting Monday night, Ryan’s resignation was accepted by a 3-to-2 vote. Chairman William Padien and member Anne Hall were opposed. Her $90,000 contract will be renegotiated.

“I feel there were things done incorrectly — wrong,” Padien said, “but there were a lot of things done correctly.” The resignation might be a service to some, but it would be a disservice to others as it stemmed from a single incident, he said.

Prior to the vote, parent Derek van Lent spoke in support of Ryan, saying it was his understanding that Ryan has been “outstanding,” with the exception of one regrettable incident.

John Warfel, a teacher at the 150-student school, cautioned that the combined special education-superintendent position had created an inherent conflict because it essentially required Ryan to supervise herself.

Then former Police Chief William McCombe, acting as advocate for the mother of the boy restrained in the room, suggested “the public didn’t have the whole picture.” He alluded to the Sept. 2 letter containing admissions involving Bradley and a written educational plan for the student. Padien said it wasn’t relevant to the motion. McCombe responded that such details were relevant to Ryan’s performance.

After the meeting adjourned, Myers, the district’s lawyer, was asked why she had written a letter to the Department of Education in late July asserting that the school had an individual education plan and a behavioral plan in place for the boy. She said Ryan had told her so.

“There has never been a behavior plan,” Myers said.

Ryan will not be allowed to have contact with the boy or his sibling, Myers said.

“[Principal Davida Irving] will be in charge of the child,” Myers said. “He will not be dealt with by the superintendent.”

Town Manager Nancy Dodge said yesterday she was perplexed to read the Sept. 2 letter because Ryan had told her repeatedly that there was a behavior plan for the child and that Bradley had been involved “every step of the way.”

“There was no plan,” Dodge said, adding, “I was very surprised to find that out so far along the way.”

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