‘The Numbers Are Not Good’: School District Reviews Seclusion, Restraint Use

‘The Numbers Are Not Good’: School District Reviews Seclusion, Restraint Use

Board member concerned about number of minority students subject to practices

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Montgomery County Board of Education members Rebecca Smondrowski, left, and Brenda Wolff listen to a presentation about the use of restraint and seclusion on MCPS students.

Caitlynn Peetz

A Montgomery County school board committee wants to ramp up “cultural competency” training and frequency of reporting data about the use of restraint and seclusion in Montgomery County Public Schools.

Brenda Wolff, member of the school board’s Special Populations Committee, on Thursday morning asked MCPS staff members to provide monthly reports breaking down the use of restraint and seclusion by school and student demographic.

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.

Wolff, in her first year on the board, voiced concern about implicit bias leading to a disproportionate number of “black and brown” students being subject to physical restraint or seclusion practices.

“I’m not convinced the cultural competency training we’re doing is actually benefiting this situation,” Wolff said. “The numbers are not good here, particularly for black and brown children, so I want to know how many kids are being restrained and secluded and how many times the same child is there.”

Wolff, of Silver Spring, formerly worked for the Boston Office for Civil Rights and the National Institute on Education of At-Risk Students.

MCPS Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro said the data would be provided to the three members of the board’s Special Populations Committee, but it would likely be confidential to comply with federal student privacy laws.

In the hourlong presentation to the school board committee, MCPS staff members did not provide data about seclusion or restraint used in the school district.

However, in a report to the state Department of Education in December, MCPS reported 723 seclusion incidents for the 2017-2018 school year.

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 5 to 10 years old.

More than 450 of the reported seclusion incidents involved black students and about 150 involved white students.

MCPS reported 1,656 incidents of physical restraint in the same year, according to the report.

Kevin Lowndes, director of the MCPS Office of Special Education, said the school district is not authorized to disclose statistics from the 2018-19 school year until the Maryland State Department of Education releases them, which is expected to occur by the end of the year.

MCPS has 26 schools with dedicated “seclusion rooms,” Lowndes said. Each of those schools has programs “where we have students who have tendencies toward physical violence,” Lowndes said.

“The goal is that restraint and seclusion is the last option we have available to us when a student is really in danger of hurting themselves or other students and staff,” Lowndes said. “It’s a really high threshold for when … it can be used.”

Each of the 207 schools in MCPS has a five-person team of staff members trained in how and when to use restraint and seclusion. The school’s principals decides who is on the teams. They often include administrators, teachers, counselors and secretaries — anyone who has time to respond to “crises.”

Training largely focuses on how to de-escalate situations before resorting to restraining or secluding a student, according to Jodi Chesman, an MCPS staff member in charge of the training.

Chesman said there are additional resources and training for schools with many incidents. She said more than 1,000 MCPS staff members have been trained this year on de-escalation.

The training does not delve into understanding bias or cultural competency, Chesman said.

Wolff said a component should be added to ensure minority students are not subjected to restraint or seclusion due to “implicit bias.”

Each time a student is restrained or placed in seclusion, staff members must document the incident on an online portal and notify the student’s guardians both verbally and in writing. The incident becomes part of the student’s record and involved school staff meet afterward to “debrief,” Chesman said.

“Finding time to do that is a challenge, but the debriefing doesn’t need to be an hour-long meeting,” Chesman said. “They can meet for five to 10 minutes at the end of the day to answer any questions and discuss what we can do tomorrow so things don’t escalate to the same place.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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