Thursday, April 2, 2009

Open Letter to PA Disability Rights Network

April 2, 2009

To:       Sallie Lynagh, Team Leader

From:   Jennifer Searcy, Founder/Director of Public Policy & Affairs

Re:       Franklin Learning Center

Dear Sallie:

I am contacting you today on behalf of The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports regarding an article published on March 27, 2009 by Rob Luff at Public Opinion Online about the Disability Rights Network investigation of Franklin Learning Center. ( 12007428? source=most_viewed).

This article mentioned that the Disability Rights Network (DRN) received a number of parental complaints regarding possible abuse atFranklin Learning Center, and that based on the volume of complaints DRN had received, DRN staff had determined an investigation into those allegations would be necessary.

The article further mentioned that you personally were sent to Franklin Learning Center to investigate these allegations, that you personally witnessed staff physically restraining children by strapping them into their chairs, and that this same staff admitted to you that they were doing so for behavioral purposes.

The article went on to indicate that you had forwarded your findings on to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but that the Department of Education had already investigated the school once, and found, with the exception of messy paperwork, that the school was “mostly clean.”

Fortunately, the Department of Education agreed to investigate again. Unfortunately, the Department of Education agreed to investigate again. Please allow me to elaborate and share our concerns.

As a fellow member of the ARC Systems Advocacy and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee (SAGA) for Early Childhood/Education (ECE) and one of the two parent representatives who testified before the House of Representatives Education Sub-committee on behalf of the ARC, I know that we are both well-aware that the practice of physically restraining a child for disciplinary purposes is illegal under Chapter 14.

We also know that Chapter 14 permits restraints to be written into the children’s IEPs, with the additional stipulations that restraints may not be used for the convenience of staff and that they should only be used when the child is a danger to himself or others. We also know that schools routinely abuse this provision.

The Department of Education has been reported to have previously conducted an investigation. Their investigation reportedly concluded with the Department of Education asking this school to clean up its paperwork; no restraint and/or abuse violations, or other infractions were substantiated.

Our concern is that all the Department of Education will do is to ask the district to again correct their paperwork and will not take any action (direct or indirect) to put a stop to staff’s atrocious and egregious violation of the law. This is unacceptable, and begs the question:

Whose concerns will really be served by referring the case to the Department of Education? The childrens’, or the districts’?

Those of us in the disability community know how harmful, traumatic, dangerous, and often deadly physical restraints can be when used inappropriately. We know, too, of the movement (especially in Pennsylvania) to eliminate restraints in nursing homes and psychiatric treatment centers.

Focus is now finally shifting to schools and towards the use of positive behavioral interventions and educational practices based upon research, rather than on unproven techniques, like restraints, which are not based upon research.  

Despite this, there are still provisions in existing laws which permit the use of restraints under certain circumstances. Chapter 14 permits just such a practice.

As I’m sure you’re aware, if restraints are written into the children’s IEPs, then it is much harder to prove a school is using restraints inappropriately. I should know, as this was the only way the Department of Education “proved” that my school district illegally and inappropriately restrained my daughter back in 2006.

Schools also can intimidate parents and twist facts to suit their purposes so that any action, including strapping a child to a chair, can sound like a reasonable, safe, and/or educational practice.

Parents, especially to children with significant behavioral issues relating to their disabilities, may defer to a school’s wishes and recommendations, as school staff are the supposed “experts.”

What staff won’t disclose is that at times techniques which are not safe or steeped in research are used for the convenience of staff, rather than out of true “need.”

Further, the Department of Education put pressure on my district, which then put pressure on me, to try to force me to agree to the addition of restraints in my daughter’s IEP so that the district could be cleared of wrong-doing. I refused, and my district used other tactics to try to and eventually succeeded in forcing us out of the district.

We would hate to see this repeated, now, at this school, not when your eye-witness testimony could possible put a stop to it.

By virtue of the “paperwork being cleaned” by the addition and inclusion of restraints (if not already listed in the child’s IEP), the school would then practically have the endorsement, if not the approval, of the Department of Education, to continue to abuse these vulnerable children. Again, this is unacceptable.

This again begs the question:

What does the DRN hope to gain from this referral?                                                                                                                                                                                    

Are you just following normal procedures? Are there any other avenues (such as a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of all the children illegally and inappropriately restrained, a request for additional staff training so that they don’t intentionally or unintentionally violate Chapter 14 as it pertains to restraints in schools), if any, also being pursued by DRN staff?

If the DRN has no intention of seeking further remediation, then what rationale is being used to justify taking no further action, including and up to filing a civil rights complaint, as the DRN has the federally mandated authority (and receives federal and state funding) to pursue?

DRN CEO Ilene Shane had reportedly stated that DRN is not trying to shut down the Franklin Learning Center, but rather the DRN’s intent is to bring awareness to what placements and services may be available to disabled children in their home districts, thereby possibly expanding educational options for disabled children and their parents.

Ms. Shane also appeared to implicate that the districts are really the ones to be held accountable (and blamed as it were) for referring children to this school and not informing parents of the full continuum of placement options and/or services the children could receive in their home district.

So in essence, it’s not the fault of the personnel at Franklin who you witnessed abusing these children, it’s the fault of the district (and by extension the parents) who agreed to send them to Franklin to be abused in the first place. How is this even remotely logical?

And our last and most important questions:

While the Department of Education investigates to see whether they agree with what you’d reportedly seen with your own eyes, who is protecting those children from further restraints?

Who will finally put a stop to the abuse those children endure seemingly on a daily basis?

I’ve shared this article, along with our concerns, with the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as with other advocates across the nation. I’ve also posted a copy of this letter on my blog so that others may learn what happened at FranklinLearning Center

Thank you for investigating and substantiating abuse allegations at Franklin Learning Center. We look forward to your response. 

Best regards, 


Jennifer Searcy                                                                                                                                                   Founder/Director of Public Policy & Affairs                                                                                                             The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports

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