Thursday, December 3, 2009

MD: Parents worried about ‘seclusion rooms

Seven Frederick County schools have rooms intended to help calm violent or over-agitated students

by Margarita Raycheva | Staff Writer

A confined space with bare walls, linoleum floor, no furniture and a window for observation.

That is how educators describe "seclusion rooms" used to subdue violent or over-agitated special education students in seven Frederick County schools.

And Carla Papaioannou cringes at that thought.

Papaioannou had no idea until this year that Carroll Manor Elementary, at which she has two children, has a seclusion room.

When she discovered it — just down the hallway from her daughter's colorful and cozy classroom — it wasn't only the tiny space and the bare, unfinished walls that troubled her.

"It's like this big secret that is going on," said Papaioannou, who also has a kindergartner with autism. "Aesthetically, it is a very scary place. ... It is not a clinical setting."

Papaioannou told the Frederick County Board of Education about her concerns on Nov. 23 after finding out that the board was thinking about building one in Oakdale Elementary School.

"I am concerned about the training of the staff at the school," Papaioannou said. "Who decides to put the kids in that room?"

Teachers, according to county educators, decide when a student needs to be secluded, and they do not take the decision lightly.

"Only a very small percentage of students need this kind of intervention," Pam Pencola, the school system's director for special education and psychological services, told the school board. "It is a very serious step."

Seclusion can be used for any student, but is typically used on students who have special needs, Pencola told the board.

In fact, all seven Frederick County schools that have a seclusion room also have the Challenges or Pyramid programs, which serve students with severe autism and sensory issues and extreme behavior problems.

School system staff follows strict regulations for the use of seclusion rooms and are required to record every instance when they are used, Pencola said.

She did not specify how often schools use seclusion rooms because The Gazette had already requested that information through the Freedom of Information Act.

A Maryland law enacted in 2003 governs the use of seclusion, and local school systems have regulations based on that law.

For example, educators can only place a student in seclusion if the child becomes a safety threat or if seclusion is written in that child's individual education plan. Destruction of school property is not considered sufficient grounds for the use of seclusion.

Educators can seclude a child only after other interventions fail, and for no longer than 30 minutes straight. They must also constantly monitor a child in seclusion, and inform the child's parents.

But state law does not require school systems to systematically report the use of seclusion rooms to the Maryland State Department of Education.

The department, however, does investigate complaints about that practice, said Donna Riley, branch chief at the Maryland State Department's Division for Special Education and Early Intervention Services. Riley does not recall receiving complaints from Frederick County.

Riley said research has shown the seclusion does not help students in the long term, and the state department discourages the practice.

Instead, the state trains educators to look for the cause of outbursts and behavior problems. A fluorescent light or a noisy air conditioner can trigger aggressive behaviors, especially in students with autism and sensory issues.

If teachers can identify those triggers in individual students, they can avoid the need for seclusion. "It is much better to use that positive model," she said.

Riley encourages school systems not to build seclusion rooms. "I tell them: ‘Don't even go there.' There is a much better way," she said.

Still, Frederick County educators defended the practice, and said they use seclusion rooms as a last resort. Seclusion, educators say, is a necessity today when public schools educate much more students with severe problems, rather than institutionalizing them.

"This room is not used for normal bad behavior," said schools Superintendent Linda Burgee, the Frederick County Schools Superintendent, who encouraged parents to turn to their individual schools if they have other concerns.

"We would welcome the possibility to follow up on your comments," she told parents, who spoke to the board on Nov. 23.

But parents who attended the meeting were not satisfied.

They urged the school board to check if schools use of seclusion rooms according to regulations, and questioned the effect that the use of seclusion rooms can have on other students.

Seclusion rooms go against the efforts to mainstream special education students, and only prevent students from learning and being in the classroom, said Michele Clune, a parent with students at Tuscarora Elementary and the Monocacy Valley Montessori Charter School.

They are not a solution to behavioral problems and cannot help educators find the real reasons causing students to act out. Special education teachers have other strategies to calm down over-agitated students, and should not need to shut students in a confined space, Clune said.

"Seclusion rooms do not have a place in our schools," she said. "They could just deal with them without a quiet room."

Leslie Seid Margolis, a managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center, concurred. She said seclusion is an "archaic" method of working with students, which has proven to be ineffective, and could be potentially traumatic and dangerous for students.

"Ideally, we don't think there should be seclusion rooms," Margolis said. "It's a potentially dangerous procedure that has no place in a school setting."

She said the law center has investigated a number of cases in which students were hurt or traumatized because of improper use of seclusion rooms.

Just recently, Margolis closed a case on a student who was restrained three times in one day and then sent to an emergency room covered in bruises. Margolis would not specify where the incident happened, but it was not in Frederick County, she said.

In another older case, teachers forgot about a student placed in seclusion. The child was found at the end of the school day because a bus driver asked about the student. The law center used the case as evidence when they testified for the need to create a statewide legislation governing the use of seclusion in 2003, Margolis said.

Since then Maryland has started moving in the right direction and county school systems must follow.

"It's not just a money issue, it's a training issue," Margolis said. "The state has just begun to recognize that there is a significant lack of qualified training. That is the piece that has been missing."

E-mail Margarita Raycheva at

The following Frederick County Public Schools have a seclusion room:

Carroll Manor Elementary

Lewistown Elementary

Middletown Elementary

Middletown Primary

Oakdale Middle

Rock Creek

Gov. Thomas Johnson High

Parents who have concerns or complaints about the use of seclusion in their schools can call the Maryland Disability Law Center at 410-727-6352 between 10 a.m. and noon.

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