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NJ: Disabled kids routinely restrained/secluded; it's all normal and acceptable

June 19, 2022, Inside the quiet rooms N.J. schools are locking kids in padded rooms. Are they breaking the law?

Ana Rivera has lost count of how many times teachers locked away her son.

It started in pre-K when he was shut inside the principal’s office after he would not calm down in class. It escalated in elementary school when the Passaic County boy, who was diagnosed with autism, was routinely dragged into a room the size of closet and locked inside.

At age 6, his family said he came home with so many bruises from being roughly restrained by teachers that they took him to the emergency room.

Every time his horrified mother asked teachers what was happening, she heard the same refrain: The little boy was too much to handle. He needed to be locked up….

He was left alone inside a seclusion room, which his teachers called the Reset Room, so many times he finally left his latest school and enrolled in another private school for children with disabilities.

No one seems to be able to tell Rivera how much time her son, now 13, has spent locked away in a school’s version of solitary confinement during his years in New Jersey classrooms….

Although most families probably have no idea they exist, school isolation spaces — known as a seclusion closets or quiet rooms — are perfectly legal in New Jersey. While at least six other states have banned them outright, the rooms have been used for years in some public and private schools across the state to isolate violent or disruptive students as young as 4 or 5. Kids are usually placed in the stark, empty spaces alone until they calm down. Sometimes the doors are locked. Other times, teachers or aides hold the doors shut while children pound on the walls inside, scream for their parents or wet themselves.

It’s something New Jersey educators rarely talk about publicly. And parents don’t usually see the rooms, which are often converted closets with walls padded with gym mats, on school tours.

If teachers do talk about the rooms, they usually refer to them with easy sounding names, like the Calming Space, the Reflection Room, the Chill Zone, the Blue Room or the Timeout Booth.

Some educators, who face the potential of violence in the classroom daily, said the seclusion rooms are vitally necessary to keep students and teachers safe when kids are putting themselves and others at risk. But others said the quiet rooms are instilling lasting trauma on some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.

The use of seclusion rooms has been on the rise in New Jersey schools since Gov. Chris Christie signed a 2018 state law outlining when they can be used, according to disability advocates. The law says isolation rooms should be a last resort when students are exhibiting violent behavior that put themselves or others in “immediate physical danger.”

But NJ Advance Media interviews with more than 30 parents, advocates, teachers and school officials reveal a darker reality. Some schools appear to be violating the law by locking kids — including nonverbal special education students — in quiet rooms for relatively minor offenses, such as refusing to do assignments, fighting with classmates or taking off their shoes in class.

All of this is happening with little or no supervision by the state Department of Education, which said it has no statistics on which of New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts have seclusion rooms or how often they are being used.

And what little federal data there is on the use of seclusion rooms in New Jersey shows children with disabilities and minority students — especially Black kids — are being locked away by their schools at disproportionately high rates….

Seclusion can be used by any school in grades pre-K through 12th grade, according to the guidelines. But, it is often the most vulnerable students, elementary school kids with autism and other disabilities that leave them unable communicate effectively, who are getting locked kicking and screaming into what is essentially school solitary confinement, she said.

“If I did this stuff to my kids, they’d be calling DYFS on me,” Kinsell said, referring to the state’s protective services agency for children and families.

“I can’t say my kid is melting down, so I’m going to lock them in a closet. But we sure can in New Jersey (schools) — as long as it’s a kid with disabilities,” she added.

New Jersey public schools reported placing at least 1,150 students in seclusion between 2011 and 2017, according to an NJ Advance Media analysis of federal education data that shows for the first time how widespread seclusion rooms had become in local schools even before the new state law passed in 2018….

About 91% of New Jersey students placed in seclusion had physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities, according to the NJ Advance Media analysis of the latest available numbers from 2017.

And Black students were the most likely to be placed in quiet rooms, accounting for 44% of the New Jersey students put in seclusion that year, even though they only made up about 15% of the school population, the data shows….

Some parents’ groups say it is time for New Jersey — a state with one of the highest autism rates in the nation and one of the highest percentages of special education students — to try again and rethink its law allowing seclusion and restraint. The current school guidelines do not contain many of the strict reporting rules and limits in other state’s laws….

In January, the NAACP was one of 96 civil and human rights organizations that joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in calling on Congress to pass the bill banning seclusion rooms because of “bias ingrained in current school safety and discipline policies and enforcement of those policies.”

“The behaviors of children of color, children with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth are disproportionately criminalized, while white students or those who do not have a disability or are not LGBTQ and who engage in the same behavior are treated far more leniently,” the 96 groups said in a letter to Congress.

But some school officials said hold on: It would be a huge mistake to ban seclusion entirely. That would place teachers and other students in danger, force school officials to evacuate classrooms when students become violent and increase the need for teachers to call police for help.

Sure, it’s easy to say quiet rooms and restraint should be banned if you’re not the teacher, aide or school counselor getting hit, bit, kicked or threatened by an unpredictable student, some supporters say. In some cases, students are becoming violent multiple times a day….
In emergencies, students with severe challenging behavior must be kept safe, said Suzanne Buchanan, a psychologist and executive director of Autism New Jersey, the advocacy group that helped craft New Jersey’s 2018 law on seclusion in schools….

Under the state Department of Education’s guidelines on the use of seclusion in schools issued after the law was passed in 2018, schools can either restrain kids or place them in seclusion any time teachers and school officials believe the student or others are in danger….

Restraint is defined as physically holding a child to keep them from moving or using a mechanical device, such as handcuffs or straps.

Students are not usually restrained once they are placed inside seclusion rooms. But teachers and school security personnel often have to put kids in holds or restraints to drag them inside, advocates say.

New Jersey parents should be notified every time their child is put in a quiet room or restrained by teachers, handcuffs, straps or other means, according to state guidelines. But, several families, including many who asked that their names not be used because they feared speaking out against school districts where their kids were still enrolled, said they were either not notified when their children were put in seclusion or received minimal information when they were restrained by school officials….

It’s unclear when schools first started using seclusion rooms in schools. For decades, New Jersey was one of the only states in the nation without any law either allowing or prohibiting isolation rooms and restraint in schools.

Some disability advocates referred to it as “the Wild West” because New Jersey schools could lock students in rooms and restrain them as often and as long as they wanted, without any rules on when to check on them, how to document the incidents or how much to tell parents.

“To find out that the Department of Education had zero regulations, I was astounded … They could use restraint and seclusion at their own discretion,” said Eric Eberman, director of public policy at Autism New Jersey, who spent 20 years working in programs for children and adults with severe challenging behavior.

Autism New Jersey began lobbying in 2018 in favor of legislation that made it illegal to use restraint and seclusion in schools except in emergency situations.

The legislation sailed through the state Senate and Assembly with little public discussion. It was one of more than 100 bills signed into law by Christie in his final hours as governor.

The law said schools should only place kids into involuntary seclusion “from which the student is physically prevented from leaving” in an emergency in which people were in immediate physical danger. The law differentiated seclusion from a less severe “time out,”

which was defined as placing students in non-locked spaces to calm down.

Some advocates viewed the law as long overdue protection for New Jersey students….

But the law split New Jersey’s disability community. Some groups viewed it as a disaster. While other states were banning seclusion and restraint in schools, New Jersey lawmakers had essentially endorsed the practices and encouraged districts to set up policies outlining when teachers could use them, they said.

“We think it’s abhorrent. Restraint and seclusion were a problem before this bill, but this memorialized it into law — that it was allowed,” said Kinsell, director of public policy at SPAN, the state’s federally-designated education center for parents of kids with disabilities.

“We checked and the New Jersey Department of Education does not collect this data at a statewide level.”

Mike Yaple, a state Department of Education spokesman, when asked if the state knew how often kids were put in quiet rooms in New Jersey.

State regulations say schools should be collecting data on how often they use seclusion and restraint, but there is no requirement that those numbers be made public. The state also does not keep track of how often schools are using quiet rooms or restraining students and no mention is made of it in the annual statewide report on school discipline.

“We checked and the New Jersey Department of Education does not collect this data at a statewide level,” said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the department, who declined to comment further on the use of seclusion in New Jersey.

Schools are required to report the data every other year to the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, but those numbers have not been publicly updated since 2018. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, found the nationwide seclusion data was filled with inaccuracies and underreporting….

The “Calming Corner” in her son’s kindergarten classroom initially seemed harmless, said one Brick Township mother. It was a cozy space with a beanbag chair and stuffed animals.

But, as her son — who has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder — was sent to the corner more and more by his teacher, the corner got more and more stark.

Eventually, the school stripped it down to a bare space, blocked by a wood bookcase on one side and an aide holding up gym mats on the other to keep her kindergartener from escaping.

“It was an everyday thing. The moment he would say no or wouldn’t do anything, they would shove him in that corner,” his mother said. (Brick Township school officials did not respond to requests to comment on the district’s use of seclusion.)

One day, the boy told teachers he wanted to “blow up” the Calming Corner to save his classmates from ever having to go into it, his mother said. That was considered enough of a threat that the school required he get a psychological evaluation before he could return to class….

Another mother in Montclair said a kid doesn’t have to be put inside a seclusion space to be affected by the practice. Her autistic child was never disruptive enough in class to end up in the quiet room in elementary school. But other children in the class were left screaming in the room on a regular basis. (Montclair school officials declined to comment on their use of seclusion at the school, except to say the district is following the law.)…


People who work on the front lines in New Jersey schools also ask that they are not forgotten in the debate over seclusion and restraint.

About 14% of K-12 teachers reported an injury or other physical violence from a student during the pandemic, according to a national survey by the American Psychological Association released earlier this year. The numbers are higher for school psychologists (18%) and other school staff (22%).

"I have definitely had students throw objects, pick up chairs, throw desks,” said one behavior analyst who spent decades working in multiple suburban schools in New Jersey. “I am frequently involved in situations that are very physically intense.”

She was injured once or twice a year while trying to deescalate emotional situations involving students, though nothing serious, she said. But some of her colleagues suffered concussions. …

The reality is that many students with disabilities would not be able to be educated in their local public schools if teachers and school staff could not use restraint and seclusion, said a former Central Jersey school psychologist and case manager who oversaw autism and behavioral disability classrooms….


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