Fairfax Students Traumatized by Restraint and Seclusion, Say Advocates

Today, a newly formed Coalition for Trauma-Informed Schools issued a statement to Fairfax County Schools regarding the crisis in restraint and seclusion in the school district.  Below is the text of the statement from the Coalition which is made up of several prominent organizations, disability and mental health advocates, clinicians and special education attorneys who serve children in Fairfax County Public Schools.

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March 29, 2019

Public Statement to Fairfax County School Board and Fairfax County Public Schools

from Coalition for Trauma-Informed Schools

The undersigned are special education attorneys, disability and mental health advocates, and clinicians who serve children enrolled in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).  FCPS has amazing resources and dedicated teachers, administrators, and staff.  We seek not to criticize staff, but to highlight our concerns about the use of restraint and seclusion in the school district.  Our greatest desire is to see improved outcomes for children, and we know that the current practice of restraint and seclusion in FCPS is resulting in trauma.  We know this because we serve children who have been restrained and secluded in FCPS, many of whom are elementary school-aged.  We hope that by bringing our concerns to your attention, the Fairfax County School Board, the Fairfax Advisory Committee for Students with Disabilities, and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors will take all steps necessary to define the scope of this problem and take measures to minimize, to the fullest extent possible, the psychological and physical harm to students, families, and staff.

We know from our clients that the repeated use of seclusion of children with disabilities is a widespread problem in FCPS, particularly at “Comprehensive Services Site” programs and other locations that have seclusion rooms.  And we are concerned that children in Fairfax, with and without disabilities, are being restrained and secluded for behaviors that do not create an imminent danger of serious physical harm to themselves or others (e.g. non-compliance, breaking pencils, tearing paper, swearing, or verbal threats).  Another concern is for children who are not receiving services and accommodations individualized to their unique needs. This places them at a higher risk of restraint and seclusion.  We seek a greater focus on creating a positive school climate so that all students feel accepted and included.  Towards that end, we want to ensure that FCPS is following the guidance of the U.S. Department of Education (See: The Fifteen Principles Regarding the Use of Restraint and Seclusion; https://www2.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/index.html).

Experts have documented the harmful effects of restraint and seclusion.  For example, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors has taken a formal position that the practice of restraint and seclusion serves no therapeutic function. Indeed, they state that, “[t]he use of seclusion and restraint creates significant risks for all individuals involved. These risks include serious injury and death, re-traumatization of people who have a history of trauma, and loss of dignity and other psychological harm.”  We note that vicarious trauma to staff and other students is also a serious risk.  Moreover, the existence of dedicated seclusion rooms in many public schools within FCPS is distressing on many levels.  Although the rooms might be called “reflection rooms” or “support rooms” or “safe rooms,” all of these rooms are seclusion rooms when they are used to isolate a student and prevent them from leaving.  Parents and advocates see that the fear of being placed in such locations plays a major role in the response of children, and that response often appears to be a response to trauma.  Clearly, feeling safe is critical to a child’s sense of love and belonging, self-esteem and resilience, which all people need to thrive.  Furthermore, many taxpayers who have indirectly funded these seclusion rooms have been shocked to learn that they exist.

If FCPS values transparency and accountability, the necessary steps must include standardization and reporting of data, including data disaggregated by sub-group (race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status and disability).  The decision not to report incidents of restraint and seclusion to the Virginia Department of Education or to the United States Department of Education, as reported by WAMU 88.5, may have kept the problem out of view, but it has been well-known to advocates for children, who have been raising concerns about such incidents to FCPS administrators and attorneys representing FCPS. The recently announced superintendent’s review of restraint and seclusion procedures is appreciated, but we encourage FCPS to conduct an open process that is transparent to the entire Fairfax County community.  In addition, we ask FCPS to correct the public record in its filings with state and federal governments.

We note that a longitudinal study of FCPS outcomes associated with past restraint and seclusion could be an invaluable source of information to inform public policy and practice on this matter. That study would not require parents to come forward. Instead, existing FCPS data could be used to identify whether students have been referred to law enforcement, dropped out, left the district for private school or to be home-schooled, have been transferred to more restrictive school environments, graduated on time or at any time ended up in juvenile or adult detention.

Finally, we believe that there are effective methods of preventing the use of restraint and seclusion in almost all cases, and that working toward a restraint-free and seclusion-free school-system is important.  We know that much more attention must be paid to preventing the escalation of behavior.  We want to work with FCPS to help identify the complex considerations at play.  Accordingly, we invite FCPS to meet with a small group of advocates and clinicians to work collaboratively toward better solutions for students in FCPS.  Please contact Nancy Tubbs at ntubbs@lsnv.org or Juliet Hiznay at 202-352-8982 to discuss this opportunity to work together.

Sincerely yours,

Juliet Hiznay, Attorney at Law, J.D. Hiznay, PLLC

Nancy Tubbs, Staff Attorney and Coordinator, Education Law Project, Legal Services of Northern Virginia

Rikki Epstein, Executive Director, The Arc of Northern Virginia

Dr. Jennifer Shaw, Founding Partner, Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education

Grace Kim, Attorney at Law, the Law Office of Grace E. Kim, P.C.

James P. Atkinson, Of-Counsel Attorney, the Law Office of Grace E. Kim, PC.

Joan Proper, Attorney at Law, Law Office of Joan H. Proper, PC

Bhavin Dave, M.D., Board Certified, Psychiatry/Neurology-Child Psych

Susan Edgerton, President, Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia

Amy Peterson, LCSW, Center for Attachment & Trauma Services, Inc.

Kelly Henderson, Executive Director, Formed Families Forward

Kimberly Greenspan, Managing Member, Education Advocates of Northern Virginia

Teresa L. Champion, Virginia Autism Project

James Jarrett, Executive Director, ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia

Rhonda Thissen, Executive Director, NAMI Virginia

Media inquiries: Call Juliet Hiznay at (202) 352-8982