District debates claims, cites improvements
ANCHORAGE – It was a little after nine on the morning of April 29, and 5-year-old “Victor” was sitting on the floor, crying. (Editor’s note: Children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.)
Minutes earlier, a staff member at Mt. Iliamna Elementary School had dragged the kindergarten student into one of the school’s designated “safe rooms” — bare enclosures designed to “support… students who need to recover from an unsafe event or unsafe behavior.”
Once inside, the staff member released her grip on the boy’s torso and ran for the door. Victor followed her out of the room, only to be pulled back through the tiled threshold.
The second time around, he wasn’t fast enough, and the staff member closed the safe room door before he could escape. Video cameras at the school recorded the boy sitting with his back to the door, sobbing. According to school records, he would be confined to the safe room 16 more times over the next week.
He wasn’t the only one.
Located on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Mt. Iliamna is a school for students with developmental and behavioral disabilities in kindergarten through 5th grade. Students experience a range of conditions ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to autism to bipolar disorder, and Anchorage School District officials say staff members are specially trained to work with those students.
Despite the training and strict district policies on the use of student seclusion and restraint, in November 2012 the Disability Law Center of Alaska heard allegations of a female student who had been confined to the school’s safe rooms without due cause. The center, a federally mandated advocacy group, began investigating the claims and soon discovered the incident was far from isolated.
In fact, the law center’s final report claims instances of student abuse and neglect by school staff members in several cases over the last year.
It alleges Mt. Iliamna students were kept in school safe rooms more than 850 times during the 2012-2013 school year. Ron Cowan, an investigator and legal advocate with the DLC, said this presents several issues.
“One of the problems with seclusion, besides the fact that it’s potentially traumatic to students (especially if they’ve already been traumatized by some other experience), is that they’re not able to receive the education that they’re at the school for to begin with,” Cowan said. All total, the report claims Mt. Iliamna students spent more than 40 school days in seclusion last year.
District administrators take a different view.
Linda Carlson, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, said the safe rooms are a tried and true way to calm down unruly students, providing peace and quiet and necessary physical separation. But it’s hardly the first recourse, and Carlson said staff members and teachers are trained to try alternative methods first.
“The use of seclusion is a last resort, and the same thing with restraint,” she said. “So, whenever a child is having a difficult time, we’re going to try everything we can, every other intervention prior to the use of safe rooms.”
Again, the district and the DLC disagree: According to the law center’s report, 60 Mt. Iliamna students were placed in seclusion last school year. The entire student population fluctuates around 50 to 60 students annually, and Cowan calls the practice of student seclusion widespread and systemic.
And while it affected nearly every student at the school last year, he said not every Mt. Iliamna parent knew about the school’s policies.
“I don’t think that they were aware of the scope of the use of seclusion at this school,” he said.
In some cases, parents weren’t notified about student safe room visits. In others, the visits were never even recorded in the logs mandated by the district, only captured by the video cameras monitoring the premises. Sometimes law center investigators discovered disparities between staff members’ written accounts and school surveillance video of encounters with students.
“Chuck,” an autistic seven-year-old prone to running in school, is one of those students.
Just a few days before school cameras captured Victor’s failed escape from the safe room, staff members reported an incident where an overexcited Chuck had made a break for the exit, tried to assault several teachers and ultimately been restrained in a district-approved way.
When law center investigators reviewed the videotapes, however, they saw something a little different. After the boy ran down the hallway, out the door and back into the exit area, he sits down on the floor, surrounded by the three adult staff members trying to contain him. One teacher tries to lift him from the floor, and finally picks him up under his arm as the first grader struggles to get free.
“The method employed by the teacher is not an approved restraint under any program known to the DLC,” the report concluded.
Chuck’s mother claimed the heavy bruising on her son’s forearms stemmed from that same encounter, but law center investigators were unable to substantiate her belief.
While the school district continues to prepare an in-depth response to the law center’s investigation and findings, Carlson said school employees specialize in responding to students like Chuck and Victor.
“Staff who work there have been trained in working with students with those specific needs, and we continue to update their training all the time, so they also have the latest research practices in place for those students,” she said.
In a perfunctory, two-page response letter to the report, Superintendent Ed Graff said Mt. Iliamna had improved its program through “important changes” over the past year. Specifically, he wrote, staff would benefit from further “training and supports” to ensure they were aware and in line with district policy.
Graff’s letter also questioned the accuracy of the seclusion rates cited by the law center’s investigation. “We do not agree that students attending Mt. Iliamna have been neglected or abused,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Cowan said his organization is holding a private meeting Monday to discuss its findings with concerned Mt. Iliamna parents.