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New Jersey: Restraining/secluding and NOT REPORTING

Jun 1 2022, Politico: New Jersey doesn't provide data on how many students are restrained, secluded in school

Shane Camardo said he was “floored” when he first saw the photos and videos on the school's parent messaging app of his then-4-year-old son, Cole, wearing pale pink ankle weights in class in October 2021.

Public schools nationwide are required to report the total number of students subjected to restraint or seclusion to the U.S. Department of Education, but in recent years, several investigations have found districts are widely underreporting those instances.

Neither he nor his wife had given the Cherry Hill school district permission to use ankle weights, he said, but there was Cole, who is autistic, climbing ladders, playing with classmates and crawling through tunnels — with weights strapped to his still-developing legs.

Camardo said Cole is “an active little guy” and when the family reached out to his teachers about why the restraints were being put on their son without their permission, they asked, “are they being used to slow him down?”...

The Camardos’ story is one example of how a school district may be interpreting New Jersey’s relatively new restraint and seclusion policy for students with disabilities, but it’s also illustrative of how opaque that data is in the state.

New Jersey doesn’t collect or make publicly available statewide data on district use of restraint and seclusion, and without stories like the Camardos’, it’s hard to know how schools are implementing the law and how many students are affected.

Public schools nationwide are required to report the total number of students subjected to restraint or seclusion to the U.S. Department of Education, but in recent years, several investigations by the media and federal government have found districts are widely underreporting those instances.

Reports from Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school district in Virginia, revealed that while the district reported no instances of students being physically restrained or secluded to the federal government for years, there were hundreds of cases where children, some as young as 6, were being subjected to restraint or seclusion.

California sought to tighten its restraint policy and reinstate the reporting mechanism after statewide tracking stopped in 2013.

Last week, the U.S. DOE's Office for Civil Rights found Horry County Schools in South Carolina was both underreporting and sometimes inaccurately reporting their restraint and seclusion data.

According to New Jersey’s 2018 restraint and seclusion law, physical or mechanical restraints, such as ankle weights, and seclusion tactics such as confining students in a closed room alone, can only be used with students with disabilities who present an immediate danger to themselves or others.

But advocates for students with disabilities say that while the state’s policy is much better than the lack of regulations that came before, it’s not always implemented transparently.

After seeing the photos and videos of Cole, further inquiry by the Camardos revealed their son was wearing the weights for the whole school day: Three hours a day, five days a week for several weeks without parental permission, Camardo said.

The state eventually launched an investigation into the weights and a separate incident where Cole came home with bruising from his thighs to his ankles. That investigation came back “unfounded,” according to a letter from the state Department of Children and Families' Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit to the Camardos that was reviewed by POLITICO.

“It’s heartbreaking to look back now knowing that we were sending him into a toxic environment and he couldn’t tell us,” Camardo said. “At worst, he was abused. At best, he was neglected. Neither are situations any child should have to go through in school.”...

After the bruising and the ankle weights, the Camardos hired a lawyer and pulled Cole out of the district, saying the school improperly used restraints on their son without the required parental notification....

“Yes, there's more calls about seclusion and restraint. There's more calls about discipline and removal from school and more calls from schools putting kids out and saying ‘you can come back when you have a psychiatric clearance.’ All of that has escalated since the return from Covid.” Peg Kinsell, policy director at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network a nonprofit that advocates for students with disabilities and other socioeconomic vulnerabilities, said in an interview.

New Jersey’s restraint and seclusion law, signed in 2018 during the waning days of former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, only applies to students with disabilities and bars the use of physical and mechanical restraints except in cases of emergency....

Though state Department of Education guidance accompanying the statute requires schools to notify parents every time their child is restrained or secluded, families and advocates say that doesn’t always happen.

Camardo said that if he didn’t have photos and video of his son wearing the weights, he might not have known what was going on in the classroom as Cole, who is now 5, struggles with verbal communication.

There’s no statistical way of knowing if instances of restraint and seclusion have increased in New Jersey as the state Department of Education “does not collect this data at a statewide level,” department spokesperson Mike Yaple said.
The data is not reported in a district’s school performance reports, or anywhere on the DOE’s website.

Under an early version of the bill, the state DOE would have been required to collect data on districts’ use of restraint and seclusion and report that information to the public.

According to Kinsell, that language was pulled “at the last minute” and the bill was ultimately signed without that provision....

That U.S. DOE data shows, in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, students with disabilities represented 66 percent of students secluded and 71 percent of students restrained despite those students representing only 12 percent of the total student body.

The data available doesn’t reflect what advocates are hearing from parents, Kinsell said.

According to a 2019 report issued by the Government Accountability Office, for the 2015-2016 school year 70 percent of school districts nationwide, and 78 percent of New Jersey school districts, reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion.

“We just know that wasn't true,” Kinsell said.

According to the Camardos and other parents POLITICO granted anonymity to protect their family’s privacy, parents of students with special needs in New Jersey who believe their children have been improperly restrained are having to navigate complex and expensive legal pathways to advocate for their childrens’ rights....

But after this experience, and talking to other families in the district, Camardo said, he’s lost confidence in the school system and the state.

“You see all these ads on TV, you hear all these people saying ‘special education in New Jersey, it's the place to be, we care about these kids,’” he said. “But how can you say that when this one five-year-old, autistic child went through this, let alone how many are like that?”


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