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June 6, 2023, WFYI, Indianapolis: Indiana isn’t holding schools accountable for forcibly isolating and restraining students

An 11-year-old boy was isolated inside a room inside his school for roughly 12 hours over the course of two days early last fall. The boy is on the autism spectrum. And it wasn’t the first time he was removed from his class and forced into seclusion.

The boy was secluded for roughly 15 hours over the course of about 13 school days between mid-September and early October of last year, according to records from his Indiana elementary school. His mother, Suzi Swinehart, said the total amount of time her son was isolated is likely closer to 26 hours.

While in seclusion, he completed a standardized test, fell asleep multiple times and, in one seclusion incident in March 2022, school staff wrote that they believe he may have had an absence seizure — a brief seizure that causes a lapse in awareness — according to school records. The boy is diagnosed with epilepsy, but Swinehart said school employees never notified her about the suspected seizure….

Swinehart’s son attends Warsaw Community Schools, a district in north central Indiana. WFYI is not publishing his name because he is a minor….

After repeated bouts of seclusion and physical restraint by Claypool staff, he now dreads going to school.

“He would cry and just say over and over again how much he hated school,” Swinehart said. “[The seclusions and restraints] had a horrible effect on him. He's traumatized. He can't sleep in his own bed. I don't think he'll ever like school again.”

Swinehart’s son isn’t the only student in Indiana traumatized through the experience of seclusion and restraint in schools.

Students across the state are secluded and restrained thousands of times each year, according to data provided by the Indiana Department of Education….

Indiana lawmakers approved legislation a decade ago that was intended to regulate and curb the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.

The law states that these interventions should be used rarely, and only as a last resort in situations where the safety of students or others is threatened.

But a lack of oversight from the Indiana Department of Education means it’s unclear whether the law has had its intended effect.

The DOE collects district-reported data on the number of incidents of seclusion and restraint in schools.

But a WFYI investigation — based on public records, court documents, internal school logs, audio recordings of state-level meetings, and parent interviews — found that some schools do not accurately report incidents of restraint and seclusion to the state.

The DOE is also required to conduct an annual audit of seclusion and restraint data reported to the agency by school districts, according to a rule that took effect in 2018.

But the department has no record of an audit ever being done for the previous four school years, according to a spokesperson for the agency, Christina Molinari….

State requirements with no enforcement…

Interviews with parents across the state also show that schools are not always following their own policies. Children have been injured during seclusion and restraint incidents, leading some to remove them from school out of a concern for their safety. …

Some districts — including Warsaw Community Schools where Swinehart’s son is enrolled — have adopted plans that go beyond what’s required, by including a statement that seclusion and restraint shall never be used as a form of punishment or as a matter of convenience.

But Swinehart’s son was secluded for not following directions. And, on one occasion, he was secluded for roughly six hours because he threw a piece of paper on the floor, stabbed a water bottle with a pencil, tapped his pencil on a desk, and attempted to leave the seclusion room, according to school records. …

Special education advocates have long been concerned about the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Nationally, students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to these practices: 77 percent of students secluded and 80 percent of students restrained during the 2017-18 school were receiving special education services, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education….

The DOE did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Stephen Balko, an employee at the department and chairman of the Commission on Seclusion and Restraint. Six current members of the commission declined to comment or did not respond to an interview request….

Just a few days into the August 2018 school year, Emme got a call from her son’s school nurse. She was told her kindergartener had fallen and hurt himself after being placed in a room alone.

WFYI is withholding Emme’s full name to protect her family’s privacy and because she fears retaliation from her son’s school district.

Emme’s son attended George L. Myers Elementary School — part of the Portage Township School system in northwestern Indiana. Her son is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD, among other conditions. Emme said he was placed in a classroom at the elementary school with children who had a variety of behavioral issues and needs.

Emme said her son has impaired language and memory skills, and will sometimes experience episodes of screaming outbursts….

Portage Township Schools — a district that serves roughly 1,200 students with disabilities — reported zero incidents of seclusion to the DOE for the last five school years, including for the 2018-19 school year when Emme’s son broke his nose after being placed in a room by himself.

Emme believes that PTS failed to report her son’s seclusion to the DOE.

It’s a worry that’s shared by multiple members of the state commission. Since at least 2019, commission members have expressed concerns to DOE staff that schools are not accurately reporting seclusion and restraint incidents, according to recordings of commission meetings provided by the DOE….

But Dodson and other commission members believe there is significant underreporting of seclusion and restraint by schools. She said the data collection is “clearly not working, and I think we need to revisit that. And perhaps that needs to be revisited legislatively.”…

But Molinari wrote that the DOE has no power to investigate general complaints from parents regarding seclusion and restraint, because they fall outside the department’s authority. Solutions to a national problem

Underreporting and misreporting of seclusion and restraint data is not unique to Indiana. Federal government watchdogs, advocates for children with disabilities and researchers agree it's a nationwide problem. But there are solutions.

Schools are required to report incidents of seclusion and restraint as part of the Civil Rights Data Collection, a program administered by the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education.

But an analysis of the 2015-16 CRDC seclusion and restraint data concluded that “it is impossible to accurately determine the frequency and prevalence of restraint and seclusion among K-12 public school students” due to “significant data quality problems,” according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office.

That’s a problem, because when federal data is misreported, it’s not a reliable source of information to inform policy decisions or determine if use of these measures is discriminatory, excessive or both, according to the GAO report.

School districts were entering zero incidents of seclusion and restraint “when they didn't actually have zero incidents,” said Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at the GAO. Nationwide, 70 percent of school districts reported having zero incidents of seclusion and restraint during that academic year….

The Indiana DOE did not respond to questions about whether the department will make changes to its seclusion and restraint data collection practices….

Blessing said often the only way for parents to get these practices to stop is to sue. He said it's up to parents to demand documentation and maintain communication with teachers.

“These parents are forced to become sort of a private attorney general, to enforce the laws which the state of Indiana should be enforcing,” Blessing said.

Swinehart said she’s made a point to spread awareness about the issue. She shares her family’s story with parents of children with disabilities, and recommends they ask school employees about behavior interventions and about seclusion and restraint practices.

But Swinehart is frustrated the state hasn’t done more to hold schools accountable.

“That’s upsetting, extremely upsetting,” Swinehart said. “What good is this policy if no one’s following it, and if there is no accountability?”


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