Wednesday, May 20, 2009

WI: Disability advocates challenge school seclusion rooms


Jim Schingen hopes that sharing his son’s story will put a face to new legislation calling for the restricted use of physical restraints and seclusion rooms on the disabled.

The Fond du Lac man was invited to join with Wisconsin advocacy groups in speaking out at a recent news conference held at the state Capitol. He said his son Justin, who has pervasive developmental disorder, suffered a broken elbow nine years ago when a teacher at Theisen Middle School put him in a Marine hold to restrain him.

A subsequent lawsuit filed in federal court in Milwaukee eventually was resolved with a settlement. Schingen said the experience changed the way his son was treated in school. 

“We were satisfied with the outcome,” Schingen said. “Obviously, no amount of money can compensate when someone injures your child, but it helped Justin in the long run.”

He was disturbed, however, to learn that isolation rooms were still being used — though the use is limited — for students in Fond du Lac schools.

A joint report, “Out of Darkness Into the Light,” issued this spring by Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin FACETS and Wisconsin Family Ties, states that children in Wisconsin schools and treatment settings regularly and needlessly suffer from harmful practices used to manage “challenging behavior.” Children, including a 7-year-old Rice Lake girl, have died as a result of restraint use. Others have suffered physical injuries, such as broken bones, and psychological harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The new bill, submitted for draft a couple weeks ago by Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, calls for the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a safer and more effective alternative to seclusion and restraint. A psychiatric nurse, Pasch said she has seen standards change on the use of seclusion and restraints on adults and it’s time these changes affect children in Wisconsin’s schools and treatment centers. 

“Our state must address outdated or nonexistent measures that fail to adequately address the health and educational outcomes of our children,” said Pasch. “Seclusion should never be used on children. It makes much more sense to sit with them and understand the student.”

Although children with disabilities, accompanied by behavioral problems, have been mainstreamed in public schools, educators are often not given adequate training to address the problem, she said.

Schingen said in his son’s case, Justin was often secluded in a “time-out” room on the premise that it was a separate instruction room for him. 

“Initially, the room had a bean bag chair, a desk, a boom box and was used as a calming effect. As time went on, they used it for disciplinary measures and everything was removed,” he said. 

In 2000, Justin was on a bus trip and would not follow a teacher’s request that he stop tapping on the roof of the van. That was when he was placed in an arm hold used in the Marines, Schingen said. 

“That was nine years ago, so I’d rather not focus on that. Instead we need to change the laws,” Schingen said. 

Never unattended

John von Tish, director of pupil services for Fond du Lac Schools, said the district’s seclusion rooms have been physically inspected by a consultant with expertise in emotional behavioral disabilities and other health impairment programs at the Department of Public Instruction. He believes the district is already doing what the proposed law asks for — that they be used sparingly, as a last resort for the safety of everyone involved. 

“During that onsite visit, the Fond du Lac School District was found to be in compliance with all the recommendations and guidelines established by the DPI,” he said.

Attorney for Justin’s case and for Disability Rights of Wisconsin Jeff Spitzer-Resnik said there are 20 states that have statutes and regulations in place that address caregiver training, mandate reporting, and restrict the use of restraints and seclusion. He called the DPI guidelines on seclusion and restraint “a lot of text with hopeful suggestions.”

“We know there are children with behavioral and significant challenges in school. But a lot of techniques are used in situations that are not really dangerous, rather annoying and disruptive. The example for Justin is a really good one. I’m sure what he was doing was bothersome to the driver, but it wasn’t an appropriate response by the teacher to a non-violent situation,” he said. 

Von Tish said although he can’t speak about the case, which happened years ago, students in Fond du Lac Schools are never locked in rooms or left unattended. 

“We keep a log on every child indicating what behavior transpired, what happened, how long they are in a specific room, and we notify parents,” he said. “We also give students a functional behavior assessment to see if the behavior can be modified.”

Sensory break rooms are non-punitive and are used to give students a place to go before things escalate. The rooms are equipped with things like weighted blankets and vests, rockers and swings and may be dimly lit, he explained. 

“We have kids that say I need to take a break, and an adult goes with them. It’s open and kids can come and go. They can be invited to the room, or they can go there themselves. Sometimes they get scheduled on a regular basis,” he said. 

Seclusion rooms are used when “we have tried everything else and nothing can de-escalate a child,” von Tish said. The walls and floors are covered in mats and the child stays in the room only long enough to calm down.

“We try to locate the rooms close to special education classrooms. I guess there is one in every place we need it,” he said, when asked how many were located in district schools. 

Spitzer-Resnick said the bill isn’t calling for an absolute ban on techniques that need to be used in truly dangerous situations.

“Disability Rights of Wisconsin gets calls from teachers stating their principals want the kids hauled off to an ‘isolation place’ all the time. It would be more powerful if teachers could say it was against the law, that it is something that shouldn’t be done,” he said.

No comments: