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New Mexico: Under-reporting of restraint/seclusion; part of national trend

Oct 12, 2019, Las Cruces (NM) Sun News: Parents, regulators left in the dark over school behavior management techniques ALBUQUERQUE — When Urijah Salazar arrived home from school on March 1, his mother immediately saw that something was off. A fourth-grade special education student at Montezuma Elementary, Urijah often came home from school upset, but on this day he seemed particularly rattled — shaking mad, detached, almost in a state of shock. Nadia McGilbert drew a bath to help him relax, and as soon as he stepped into the tub she saw the injuries: a deep, avocado-shaped bruise on his forearm, scratches, apparently from sharp fingernails, on both arms. “Oh my God,” she sputtered. “Is this what they did to you at school?” Urijah nodded and said it hurt to breathe. McGilbert shut off the bath, told him to get dressed, and grabbed her car keys. Less than a week later, Urijah repeated the behavior he had already exhibited countless times earlier — he tried to leave the classroom and go home without permission. And once again, Montezuma teachers restrained and secluded him in a room. Such instances of restraint and seclusion are supposed to be rare, but it was at least the 150th time Urijah had been placed in a hold by school teachers in less than four years, according to a Searchlight analysis of his education records…. As court documents reveal, students in the district have been forced into seclusion rooms, or so-called “calm down” spaces, that are not only unventilated but, in some cases, so small as to violate state safety standards. Attorneys interviewed for this story say they have seen walls of seclusion rooms smeared with blood and mucus, apparently from children confined there in a panic. Hundreds of deaths from restraint have been documented in schools, psychiatric facilities, residential homes and other settings across the country, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the National Disability Rights Network and others. When death occurs, it’s typically from a type of suffocation called “restraint-related positional asphyxia.”… School data indicates that there have been at least 4,600 cases of restraint since 2014, and teachers interviewed by Searchlight say that number is certainly an undercount because many incidents are never entered into the system. … In its reporting to the federal government, APS has consistently — and falsely — denied that it uses restraint at all…. Students with disabilities make up two-thirds of restraint and seclusion cases, according to national data. They are disproportionately African American or — like Urijah Salazar — Native American. That disparity has led the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and 56 other legal and social justice organizations to issue a 2018 joint statement calling for a federal ban on the practice in public schools. Yet school superintendents and administrators have repeatedly defended the restraint and seclusion of special education students, saying the techniques are necessary to manage behavior that can be disruptive or dangerous…. …In 2017, New Mexico joined 29 other states in passing a law setting tight limits on the use of restraint and seclusion. In response to widespread complaints, the law put strict reporting requirements on schools, mandating that parents be immediately notified of any incident of restraint or seclusion. But a 10-month investigation by Searchlight has revealed that its use remains widespread in Albuquerque Public Schools, where it is routinely used to manage special education students. Like Urijah Salazar, many of those students are restrained or secluded after becoming overwhelmed and frustrated in class. Amid staff shortages, inadequate training, and a lack of clear guidance from district leadership, teachers sometimes use restraint and seclusion as a first response to moderate, non-threatening misbehavior such as “inappropriate verbalizations” and property destruction, according to both education and legal records. Albuquerque Public Schools contracts with Crisis Prevention Institute, a private Milwaukee-based company, to train its teachers and staff how to physically restrain students. ... Every APS school is supposed to have its own restraint team, according to numerous lawyers, teachers and parents interviewed by Searchlight. The “Physical Crisis Team,” as it’s usually known, consists of teachers and other staff who have received CPI training. When an alert comes over the school’s communications network, each team member rushes from his or her own classroom and, almost inevitably, aids in restraining the student who is acting out…. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that APS is not alone in misrepresenting its use of restraint and seclusion to the Department of Education. That report, published in June, found that districts across the country vastly underreport their use of the controversial techniques, raising questions about the pervasiveness of restraint and seclusion as a discipline tool and making it difficult for the federal government to enforce civil rights protections. Parents have reported to Searchlight that their children were restrained and secluded at schools in Alamogordo, Española, Grants, Los Lunas, Pecos, Las Cruces and Estancia — all districts that claimed zero instances in reports to the federal government… For years, teachers in APS have complained that they are frequently so overwhelmed that they are unable to respond to such behaviors in productive ways. In 2018, Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, voiced these concerns in an ATF publication devoted to what the organization termed a “crisis in the classroom.” “For some time now, teachers, especially in kindergarten and first grade, have been seeking help from their union because they have students in crisis in their classrooms. … Frustrated with the lack of systemic support, they call — sometimes crying; often ready to quit; always in desperation — because when kids are in crisis, teachers are in crisis.” With special education classrooms overcrowded and understaffed, many teachers report that they are left unprepared to deal with chaotic and even dangerous situations. Special education teachers, in short supply statewide, made up 36 percent of all educator vacancies in 2018, according to a report from New Mexico State University. Many special education teachers hold only an entry-level license, which provides minimal on-the-ground experience with disabilities and related behaviors…. "It can be just overwhelming, and there’s been no guidance from the district on how to deal with these situations,” said one special education teacher who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “So when a student is being disruptive, sometimes people think the easiest thing to do is have a [crisis] team come deal with it. When that happens, everybody ends up escalated — the teachers, the other students, everybody.”… …Some have suffered broken bones and concussions while trying to restrain children, according to interviews, incident reports and hearing transcripts obtained by Searchlight. … …This is not what I signed up to do.” And because federal law requires that special education students be schooled in the least restrictive environments, teachers say incidents of restraint and seclusion are increasingly occurring in general education classrooms. “We’re not fixing any of the root causes of these behaviors,” said Romero-Smith. “We’re just triaging. We need support from the district to be able to implement some real solutions.”… …. And just as overwhelmed teachers are leaving APS’s special education system in droves, so too are parents removing their kids from the district — sometimes homeschooling out of desperation, sometimes leaving the state altogether….


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