In late February, a congressional subcommittee heard testimony from a mother from Rhode Island and a teacher from Kansas.
The mom described how her 8-year-old son struggled when he had to change activities and had such severe conflicts early on, he was expelled from preschool.
The teacher described feeling overwhelmed when, shortly after starting her career, she was left largely on her own to teach 13 middle schoolers on the autism spectrum.
Both women spoke of the physical and psychological toll they suffered when classroom struggles led to physical interventions, like restraint and isolation.
House members thanked them for testifying and committed to work on making things better. But Congress has looked at changing the law around restraint and isolation before, and fixes have invariably stalled.
Closer to home, Oregon and Washington have passed laws in recent years to limit or better document the practices, but parents say the changes haven’t gone far enough. They’ve asked for tighter timelines, clearer training guidelines and mandatory changes for schools with particularly high rates of restraints or isolations.
Parents, teachers and lawmakers are all frustrated at the complexity, sensitivity and high expense of moving schools in the direction that all sides agree is best for students and staff: less use of physical interventions and more individualized support for children with special needs.
Washington state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, understands parents’ frustration.
“The challenge that I have is I that am a lawmaker, not an enforcer,” she said. “I don’t know that there’s a bill that I can pass around the area of isolation and restraint that gets to the solution that the parents in my inbox are wanting to get to.”
That leaves oversight largely in the hands of schools and state agencies. In complaint-driven systems, such as those in Oregon and Washington, that puts the onus on parents like Joe and Nikki Putman.
Their daughter Jennifer has a big presence. She’s tall for a 12 year-old, with broad shoulders, a wide grin and a booming voice. Jennifer is on the autism spectrum and, while she can be quite friendly, she also can be a handful at home and in class.
Last fall, Jennifer started at a new school — Rosedale Elementary in Hillsboro. Just six weeks into the school year, she had an outburst, which led Jennifer’s teacher to pull everyone out of class, except Jennifer. It was essentially an isolation, but not one involving a special room. Putman says her daughter could have easily hurt herself.
“Jennifer was left in the classroom, with free-standing furniture, while she was having a meltdown,” Nikki Putman said, a conclusion backed up by investigations and documentation from district and state officials of the incident last October.
What occurred is, in effect, a “room clear.” Teachers often do them as a way to avoid physically restraining a child while still watching out for the safety of students and staff. Room clears are not defined in Oregon law, nor are they uniformly reported in any way.
A recent report by the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union, grouped room clears with other emergency responses to “disrupted learning,” aimed at protecting kids.
But Putman would argue that her daughter’s safety was not being protected, as the strong 12-year-old threw a tantrum, alone, in a classroom full of sharp objects and hard surfaces.
“If she got hurt in a room with free-standing furniture, why was her safety not taken into consideration ... if you clear the room to ensure the safety of the [other] students and the teachers?” Putman asked.
Putman says she’s also seen Jennifer come home from school with bruises and received little explanation from school officials. She suspects the bruises were caused by teachers trying to physically restrain Jennifer. All this, Putman says, leaves her with serious questions about Hillsboro’s approach to children with disabilities, especially students who, like her daughter, aren’t fully verbal.
“They bank on the fact that she has limited communication skills,” Putman said, a claim educators deny.
When Putman went through the complaint process with the Hillsboro School District and the Oregon Department of Education, she was unsatisfied.
ODE’s investigation reached a conclusion of “not substantiated” on each of the Putmans’ five specific complaints, which basically alleged that Hillsboro changed Jennifer’s education plans and fabricated information around her daughter’s school experiences. Putman said regulators didn’t do an adequate job investigating.
“They didn’t even open [our] emails,” Putman said.
Putman says investigators ignored a similar instance of restraint or isolation earlier in October, that was never documented. She says the documentation confused two different events, both of which were problematic.
Putman has been persistent, reaching out to “every representative, senator, the governor,” in advocating for Jennifer. She says they all told her a version of the same thing: “‘Get a lawyer’ or ‘We don’t have jurisdiction,'” Putman said.
Putman has hired an attorney, filed a tort claim against the Hillsboro district, and sent a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in Seattle. She's also sent messages to reporters, and other public officials, sometimes mentioning Jennifer’s teacher by name.
Stepping up to challenge school administrators and teachers can be intimidating. Several teachers and parents were willing to talk to OPB privately about their problems in public schools, but not as part of a story.
Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, has heard from parents and teachers. She senses a pattern of behavior that discourages both groups from bringing problems forward.
“Teachers feel like they are not allowed to speak up about what is happening in their classrooms and that they can’t count on support from their administration,” Gelser said. “I know of a family that complained about restraint and seclusion and they ended up getting a ‘cease-and-desist’ letter from the teacher.”
The “cease-and-desist” letter Gelser heard about was sent to the Putmans by Jennifer’s teacher, alleging “wholly inappropriate, harassing and damaging false allegations you have made ... .”
Putman says that letter, on top of Hillsboro’s reluctance to transfer Jennifer to a different school, constitute retaliation. The Putmans are now home schooling Jennifer until they find a better option.
The defensive posture of school officials is familiar to educators, as well. Kathy Forbes has worked in special education in Oregon’s Tillamook School District. She says for years, educational aides wouldn’t speak out about having to restrain children, even when the staff people were getting hurt themselves.
“Kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Forbes said about whether to restrain a child and report what happened. “Nobody wants to be sued, but people are getting hurt every day.”
With teachers and parents feeling frustrated with a school system where children and adults are getting hurt, Oregon legislators are feeling pressure to change.
Gelser in Oregon agrees with Stonier, the Washington legislator, that inadequate enforcement or understanding of the law may be part of the problem.
While Washington now publishes annual restraint and isolation data down to the school level on a state website, Oregon leaves that data responsibility to individual districts. While OPB was able to get data from some of Oregon’s largest districts, Gelser says she had a different experience when she looked for data across the state.
“I had an intern last session call through every school district in the state,” she said. “And district after district said, ‘We’re just not going to comply’ and ‘You can’t make us.’”
Gelser also sees a legislative remedy to making classrooms safer. She is backing Senate Bill 963 to help clarify for teachers when restraint and isolation are allowed and when they are not. In short, it would affirm that teachers can restrain students when they're clearly doing something dangerous, say about to run into a street. But it would crack down on what she sees as the most egregious cases of restraint. She offers one example:
“A 6-year-old that had fingerprint marks on her neck from having her neck held down in a restraint, and having her family told that it was not a prohibited restraint and because there was a room clear, it was appropriate to hold a 6-year-old by the neck,” Gelser said. “It is never appropriate to hold a 6-year-old by the neck.”
Gelser says she made headway in Salem because teachers also see a benefit in clarifying laws around restraint and isolation.
Joel Nixon is a social worker at Oregon’s Clackamas Education Service District and a point person on children with disabilities for the union. He says there’s quite a bit of common ground between parents and teachers.
“Our educators and our parents have the same goals in terms of creating a safe learning environment,” Nixon said. “And the more we talk about it, the more we can figure out what to do in terms of addressing the staggering inadequacy of the system.”
As legislators look to make potentially big investments in public schools this session, maintaining safe classrooms and supporting students’ social-emotional needs, have become high priorities. There’s growing consensus that adding counselors, aides and teachers could improve relationships with challenging students.
“It’s just a time-intensive process to develop relationships, and some of our teachers have so many students, that just keeping their names straight is a challenge,” Nixon said.
In Washington, parents are optimistic that lawmakers can find more money for special education, after they met a court mandate last year to spend more on education more broadly. Legislative staff have said that funding could help train more educators, both around which restraint and isolation tactics are appropriate and how to comply with relevant state and federal laws. Rep. Stonier says they’re both important.
“It may be that educators, that school security officers, that principals don’t recognize that they’re breaking the law when they’re not in compliance,” Stonier said.
But Stonier said it will take more than money to get school administrators to follow the law.
“The funding will help with training,” Stonier said. “It won’t help with reporting, unless that’s reinforced.”
And unless there’s stronger enforcement from above, such as state investigators, it may come from below, from parents.
When the Putmans tried that, the family came away frustrated, and the teacher defensive. Sometimes parents don’t have to sue to convince a district of its legal responsibility.
“I was forced to learn the law,” said Katherine Sheppard, whose daughter Isabel struggled to learn at Vancouver’s Hough Elementary School. “Many of us are forced to take our kids out of the school, so they can have a better education.”
When Sheppard’s daughter was in second grade, she was placed was in a loud, chaotic specialized room where she couldn’t learn, her mom says.
Sheppard said her daughter started seeking out the isolation room, bringing up a gray area in the laws over school isolations. State law is clear in Oregon and Washington that students should only be physically restrained or forcibly isolated when it’s an emergency.
But if children choose to calm down in a secluded space, the rules are different.
“The teacher told me, ‘Sometimes she asks to be in there. She wants to be in there,’” Sheppard said. “And I told the teacher, ‘Well, if she sees other kids being in there, of course, she’s going to want to go in there.’
"She thinks it’s normal to be in there — and it’s not.”
Sheppard says a difficult classroom, the isolation concerns and her daughter’s academic decline led the family to enroll Isabel in a private school.
In what Sheppard says shouldn’t have been a gray area, she and the district debated Isabel’s eligibility for special education services from Vancouver Public Schools. When Sheppard sat down with district officials, she says they tried to get her to agree to a less rigorous plan.
Sheppard left the meeting accusing the district of trying to shortchange Isabel.
“The next day I get a phone call from the school district, apologizing, saying I was right,” Sheppard said.
It’s a solution that worked for the Sheppards, but like parents who have reached private settlements with school districts, it’s not a fix that helps anyone else.
Sheppard says she wanted legal training for school officials, and she doesn’t see evidence of that. Isabel attends private school on the family’s dime now, her mother said, but gets certain services from VPS.
All sides agree providing appropriate special education services to children with disabilities is enormously complex, and the solutions inevitably circle back to money. In Oregon, special ed is likely to be part of a huge effort to find more money for schools that’s been the focus of a special legislative committee for more than a year.
Washington made substantial state investments in public schools last year, but due to the complicated balance with local revenue, many districts have been forced to make cuts this spring.
Still, Rep. Stonier hopes her colleagues will invest in students with disabilities this year.
“What was left out of that was special ed, so I think that’s our next chapter in Washington state,” she said.
Stonier says school district spending is itself complicated — and dedicating money to certain purposes can have unintended consequences. Programs that relied on multiple funding sources may suffer, for instance.
When the administrators in charge of Vancouver Public Schools’ special education program were asked what they would do with more money for special education, they didn’t immediately have an answer.
“Very good question,” Daniel Bettis, special services executive director, said after a long pause.
In the end, Bettis explained that special ed competes for money in the overall district budget with other school needs. He says if lawmakers spent more specifically on special education, that choice could mean less money coming out of the regular budget for students with disabilities.
It’s shifting of funds like that which lead lawmakers such as Stonier to shy away from simple fixes, like adding money without really thinking through the ramifications. Parents and advocates hope the long-term approach will also involve districts building relationships with families on how to support, rather than control, some of the region’s most challenging children.
Editor's Note: The chart titled "Oregon School Restraint & Seclusion Rates" has been updated with 2016-17 rates for the Eugene 4J and Tigard-Tualatin school districts.