Friday, August 27, 2010

Three Iowa school districts cited for using physical force on "unruly students," some of whom have disabilities

From the Des Moines Register:

Teachers in three Iowa school districts have broken new state rules that limit the use of physical force and "timeout" rooms to discipline unruly students, state education records show.

The violations show school employees need better training and oversight for how they handle disruptive students, advocates for mentally disabled children say.

Tracy Terrell of Osceola says parents need to know the rules, too. A Creston teacher strapped Terrell's 14-year-old mentally disabled son into a chair with a seatbelt when his two aides were absent, state records show.

"You put blind trust into a school system to do the best for your child, and you don't always think twice about that until you find out something's wrong," she said.

Complaints about the overuse of "seclusion and restraint" prompted members of the Iowa Board of Education in 2008 to limit how and when teachers can lock up children. Board members also banned risky methods of restraint, such as chokeholds.

Most states adopted similar guidelines or policies after a 2009 report showed cases in which children have been hurt or killed in schools nationwide.

"The rules are extremely important," said Susan Myers, the former director of Access for Special Kids Family Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Johnston. "Children are not animals. We have to make sure that every district, down to the smallest, knows what's permitted and what's not."

Iowa rules allow educators to hold down or confine students who are a threat to themselves or others, but physical force and timeout rooms cannot be used as punishment. Educators must get permission from school administrators to confine children for more than an hour.

Since the rules were tightened in 2008, at least three districts have broken them, state records show.

The children in each case were mentally disabled, the records show. Iowa Department of Education officials ordered staff training and other "corrective" actions.

Details about the violations and who committed them are vague because education department officials refused to provide copies of complaints against the school districts.

The department's rulings, which are made public, show:

• A substitute teacher in a small school district dragged a boy across a carpeted floor to a timeout area in the boy's classroom. Education department officials refused to identify the district, which "was so small that anybody in that community would know which child was being referred to," said Thomas Mayes, an Iowa Department of Education attorney.

• A Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson High School teacher used physical force to punish a disruptive student, Mayes said. The education department's ruling excluded the teacher's name and details of the offense, which Mayes described as "abusive."

• A Creston teacher strapped Tracy Terrell's son, Storm (pictured), into a chair with a seatbelt to control him during the 2009-10 school year when his two teacher aides were absent.

The district also failed to find a substitute teacher when one of his two required teacher aides was chronically absent because of an illness, a violation of the boy's mandatory special education plan.

A third violation occurred when Storm's teacher put him on a low-calorie diet without permission from his parents.

Terrell contacted The Des Moines Register this month about the violations. Creston school officials have denied that they took place.

Storm Terrell, 14, weighs 260 pounds. He has cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy. He also cannot speak.

The boy has injured school employees in five incidents, state records show.

He displays "a variety of behavioral problems that present a danger to himself and others," school officials said in state records.

Storm's home health aide discovered problems at school when district officials hired her in April to replace one of the boy's teacher aides. Tracy Terrell later transferred her son to the Wayne school district in Corydon.

No Creston school employees were disciplined because of the violations, said David Winkelmann, a Cedar Rapids lawyer who represented the school district.

School officials have agreed to train special education employees in the proper use of seclusion and restraint and student health plans.

State officials also ordered Creston school leaders to make up for the "free appropriate public education" that Storm missed each time one of his teacher aides was absent. An arrangement has yet to be worked out between school officials and Storm's parents.

Winkelmann said Creston and other school districts that have a reputation for taking on "exceptionally difficult, challenging students" are more likely to violate state rules.

"When you're looking at someone with severe developmental disabilities, it takes training, trust, empathy, the ability to make decisions quickly and under pressure," he said. "So, it is a risk."

Myers said educators need more training and oversight.

"When bad things happen, it's not because they're bad people who want kids to suffer," she said. "It's lack of knowledge."

State rules require adequate and periodic training in proper seclusion and restraint in schools along with positive alternatives, such as talking through disputes with children.

Educators are trained once a year in some districts, and less often in others, Mayes said.

He said school officials can find help on the education department's website, but no special warnings will be issued because of the recent violations.