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2 Virginia schools blamed for restraining students

Thursday - 8/7/2014, 5:30pm  ET

FREDERIC J. FROMMER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that two Virginia schools denied students with emotional disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education by frequently subjecting them to seclusion and physical restraint.

In a July 29 letter of findings, the department wrote that it had entered into an agreement with the two public schools in Prince William County, PACE East and PACE West, to correct the problems. The letter was sent to lawyers who filed a 2012 complaint on behalf of a mother and her minor son, a former student at one of the schools and other students. The two schools are for students with serious emotional and behavioral problems.

According to the letter from the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, school employees physically restrained students for several minutes at a time. The schools also secluded students in padded areas and prevented them from leaving, or put them in a "reorientation area," a place in the school but outside the classroom.

In a footnote in the report, OCR said that in some cases students were restrained face-down, with chest facing the ground, but that school employees ensured the chest was elevated to prevent asphyxiating.

The director of special education for Prince William County Schools told the Office for Civil Rights that situations short of emergencies don't warrant seclusion or restraint. But school employees told OCR that students can be restrained or secluded for behavior "disruptive to the educational environment."

Generally, OCR wrote, students have been placed in the schools because their emotional disabilities frequently manifest in disruptive behavior -- but that almost none of the students had individual plans that addressed their specific issues.

Instead, OCR said, there is widespread and repeated use of techniques like restraint and seclusion -- "in essence, a one-size-fits-all behavioral management approach." The agency said that when restrained or secluded, the students are effectively denied access to school work -- and added that the techniques were not effective in changing problematic behavior.

OCR said it found no evidence that students were physically harmed.

In a resolution agreement signed by the Prince William County Public Schools, the school district agreed to review the educational records of any student who had more than one instance of being restrained, secluded, or put in reorientation area, to determine if the student needs to be reevaluated. Under the agreement, the school district will provide compensatory educational or other services if warranted and train staff who work with students.

The letter and agreement were first reported by The Washington Post Wednesday night.

"This decision sends a strong message to school districts that discipline policies cannot just read well -- they must be consistently applied in the classroom and incorporated into staff training," said William B. Reichhardt, lead attorney on the complaint.

The school district's legal counsel, James E. Fagan, noted that the agreement preceded the letter of findings, and he took issue with the latter's conclusion on the use of restraint and seclusion.

"We've committed to look at each individual student and look at the behavioral plan that that student has, and determine whether seclusion and any restraint had an effect on their education," he said. "To make a general statement that we overused seclusion and restraint because of raw data and numbers is not something I'd agree with."

Fagan said he also disagreed with the OCR's conclusion that the schools had denied students an appropriate public education.

"There are a number of points in there we don't agree with," he said, but added, "We intend to commit to digesting the letter of findings, whether we agree or not, and taking them as constructive criticism and moving forward in a positive fashion."

The Education Department declined to comment.

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