Among the nation’s 30 largest school districts, Montgomery County schools report the second-highest number of incidents where students are placed in isolation rooms for behavior problems, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The report, examining the quality of the data the U.S. Department of Education collects on school systems’ use of seclusion and physical restraint, showed the Montgomery school system reported 120 incidents of seclusion in the 2015-2016 school year and 332 cases of physical restraint, both among largest totals reported by school systems with more than 100,000 students.
Baltimore County Public Schools, with about 45,000 fewer students than Montgomery’s, reported the largest number of seclusion incidents with 157.
The practice of isolating a student to a confined area has come under fire from education activists who say doing so impedes a student’s education and can pose physical and mental health dangers. School system leaders across the country argue seclusion is a last resort intervention reserved for situations where children pose serious safety threats to themselves or others.
The GAO report was prompted by concerns that school districts have been underreporting incidents of seclusion. The most recent data showed 70% of the more than 17,000 school districts nationwide reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion, according to the report from the congressional watchdog office, but its analysis found the data does not “accurately capture all incidents of restraint and seclusion in schools.”
Nine of the 10 school districts with more than 100,000 students that reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion in the 2015-2016 school year later confirmed they either did not collect the data or did not correctly report their totals. It is unclear how many instances of restraint or seclusion those schools had.
The discrepancies have prompted federal officials to call into question the accuracy of seclusion and restraint data collected by schools, saying it is impossible to know how often the actions are being utilized.
“Absent reliable and accurate data, neither (the U.S. Department of) Education nor the public can know the prevalence of restraint and seclusion in public schools,” according to the report. “Our analyses raise questions about whether the confirmed instances of misreported zeros … are indicative of a more pervasive pattern of underreporting of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.”
With 156,000 students, the Montgomery County school system was ranked as the 16th largest in the country by enrollment for the 2015-2016 academic year, the most recent federal data available.
Two years later, Montgomery’s total number of seclusion incidents appears to have multiplied more than sixfold.
In a report to the state Department of Education in December, the Montgomery school system reported 723 seclusion incidents for the 2017-2018 school year. Federal data from the same timeframe is being collected and not yet available. The vast majority – 94% – of students the Montgomery school system reports to have been subject to seclusion in 2017-2018 were special education students, and most were between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.
More than 450 of the reported seclusion incidents were black students and about 150 where white.
“MCPS has a long-standing commitment to accurate, detailed reporting in compliance with federal and state law,” a school system spokesman said in a statement. “As one of the largest school systems in the nation, our numbers reflect our enrollment and commitment to transparency.”
The author of the GAO report said it’s premature to compare 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 data because as federal agencies collect the most recent data, school systems are allowed to make corrections.
“It could also be the case that different students, with different issues, might (have) entered the school system and caused numbers to be higher (in 2017-2018),” Jacqueline Nowicki, the author of the GAO report, said in a statement. “These numbers can be very sensitive to the student population at the time.”
Representatives of the county council of parent-teacher associations said the group had not previously investigated seclusion data in-depth but likely would after reviewing this week’s GAO report.
Montgomery system policy says physical restraint and seclusion is prohibited within the school district unless there is an emergency situation and those means are necessary “to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.”
The policy says the act of restraint or seclusion should be discontinued “as soon as the danger” has subsided.
A special education student’s individualized education plan, approved by their guardian, can outline specific behaviors and circumstances in which restraint or seclusion can be used, according to the policy, and seclusion and restraint acts are not allowed to last longer than 30 minutes.
The federal Department of Education guide on the use of restraint and seclusion states that the acts should never be used, except when a student’s behavior poses “imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.”
Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, an advocacy group focused on protecting the rights of students with disabilities, called on the Montgomery school system to change its policy to indicate using seclusion is never acceptable.
Students put in isolation miss classroom instruction and there have been national reports of serious injuries and deaths sustained using the practice, but no reported educational value, Marshall said.
And while the number of reports of seclusion in a school system with roughly 163,000 students may seem insignificant to some Marshall said, it is important to stop the practice.
“To the kids to whom that happened, it’s significant. Locking someone alone in a room from which they can’t exit is known to be a form of torture, and isolation is traumatizing and it’s harmful to young children,” Marshall said. “One student shouldn’t be subjected to that.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org