A mother fights back after her kids are restrained at school

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How common is excessive restraint in special education schools in California? And how groundbreaking is this settlement?

Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, CEO of EdSource. A recent lawsuit settlement requires major changes at a school operated by Contra Costa County Office of Education for children with severe emotional and behavioral challenges. According to the lawsuit, Floyd I. Marchus School had used extreme tactics such as physical restraints and isolation to punish students and control their behavior. The settlement requires the state to closely monitor Marchus school and train staff on positive discipline.

Elyse :

If this is happening in California, progressive little California, it’s still happening somewhere.

Anne:

How common is excessive restraint in special education schools in California? And how groundbreaking is this settlement? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

Elyse K. Has twins, a boy and a girl. They live in Contra Costa County in the Bay Area. That’s not her real name. She’s using a pseudonym to protect her children’s privacy. When the twins were little, they were diagnosed with anxiety and started having lots of behavioral challenges at school. In third grade, they were in counseling enriched programs, but the behavior was getting worse. Especially her son’s.

Elyse:

They started to notice some self-harm behaviors. When he’d get frustrated he’d bang his head, or he’d get embarrassed and run out of the classroom. Or he’d be on the playground and he’d throw something, you know? They were pretty intimidated by him. He was eight, but the people that were working in his classroom were fearful of him.

Zaidee:

The school called Elyse so frequently, two or three times a day, that she ended up missing a lot of work. She had to quit her job as a preschool teacher. So when district staff recommended Floyd I. Marchus school for her son, which was designed to help students like him, Elyse felt relief. In fact, she thought it would be a good place for both her twins to finally get the counseling and specialized attention they needed.

Elyse:

They sold me this beautiful bill of sales. And the way they sold it, I kind of felt like if I just send my son, he’s gonna, you know, come out this beautiful butterfly, and my daughter’s gonna still be in her cocoon. So I was like, well, buy one, get one. You get this one free. And I wanted them to take both. And I wanted them to have both participate in this amazing program, right? Like, you want it for everyone.

Zaidee:

Both twins began attending Marchus school. Some months later Elyse’s daughter blocked the door one morning instead of going out to the school bus.

Elyse:

And was like, I gotta talk to you. I don’t care if you get upset. I don’t care if I get in trouble. I’ve had enough. She’s eight talking to me this way. And she said that they’d put her up on the wall, like a coat on a coat rack. And I was like, Excuse me. Like, what, what does that mean? And she like goes, Mm mm and like spreads her legs out like a big X. And she was like, like this. And she explains that they were holding her hands and that somebody was holding her legs, and that she was too high up and her feet weren’t on the ground. And I’m like, you know, this is a new world to me as far as restraint, but as I understood it, it was a real last resort thing. And that didn’t sound anything, like anything I’d ever heard. So I had to really pause and sit her down and I’m like, break this down. Cuz if this is true, you’re given a real serious claim right now.

Zaidee:

Marchus School and other schools like it sometimes use restraint on students, but there are strict laws that govern how or when it’s done. Elise couldn’t imagine a scenario where this kind of restraint would be okay. She was livid.

Elyse:

I went straight to the school went and found a psychologist who should be, you know, in charge of all these things. And I told him what she told me, and I was like, Now tell me she’s lying. Now tell me it’s a lie. I didn’t come here for you to tell me that it’s, you know, a different situation than it was. I just want you to tell me it didn’t happen. And he told me he couldn’t tell me that.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, when restraining kids goes too far. After hearing what had happened to her daughter, Elyse K. decided to take action. She wrote letters to the State Department of Education and to the County Office of Education.

Elyse:

And then I sent it to probably 85, 86 attorneys asking if they would take the case pro bono.

Zaidee:

She eventually connected with Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm, which took on the case and found more families who had been impacted by restraint measures at Marchus School. And by seclusion, when students are put inside of a room alone. A Los Angeles law firm also worked on the case pro bono. The state of California recently settled with the plaintiffs. But did not admit liability. A California Department of Education spokesperson said the department had already conducted its first review of Marchus School and found it in compliance with state law. When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, a Contra Costa County Office of Education spokesman also said the school had been in compliance with state discipline laws since 2018. My colleague Carolyn Jones wrote about the lawsuit for EdSource. Hi, Carolyn.

Carolyn:

Goodmorning, Zaidee.

Zaidee:

So Carolyn, tell me what the lawsuit said Marchus School had done.

Carolyn:

The lawsuit said that Marchus School was secluding and restraining students as a disciplinary tool, not as it’s allowed under the law, which is sort of the last resort to protect students from themselves or from harming others. And that it was done too often, too severely into too many students. And as a result was depriving them of a right to learn.

Zaidee:

What kind of restraints are we talking about here?

Carolyn:

Well, it varies. I mean, in some instances I think students were, you know, physically restrained and in other cases they were secluded, which would’ve been put in a room alone or put in some kind of space alone for, you know, probably an excessive amount of time.

Zaidee:

So, and can you kind of clarify for us in what cases it is okay to restrain or seclude a child? And when it’s not?

Carolyn:

Under California law, which went into effect in 2019, it’s legal to restrain or seclude a student in California public schools and private schools if they are an immediate threat to themselves or others, including staff members or classmates. And that would be, you know, a physical threat like a student is about to attack a teacher, for example, or a classmate. It’s legal to pull that student back. What is not legal is to do that as a disciplinary tool, and that is never allowed under the law. You know, like a student is misbehaving or having a meltdown of some kind or acting up or somehow misbehaving in class and then punishing them by taking these measures, these physical measures against them.

Zaidee:

I know EdSource did a groundbreaking investigation on this back in 2015. And it’s actually cited in the lawsuit about just the lack of state oversight of these kind of practices. But then in 2018, there was a new law. Can you tell us what that law did?

Carolyn:

Yeah, that was AB 2657, which was signed by the governor. And that closely defines what is seclusion, what is restraint. Which had never really been done before. And then also it outlines very specifically when it’s allowed and when it’s not allowed. And requires schools to report this information every time it happens to the state. The federal government also requires it. The Office of Civil Rights. And so they also collect data on this. And then the state, they do have this information. You can go on the CDE website and find it. It’s kind of hard to find, and it’s in a giant database file, which is hard to open and hard to sort through. But it is there. And you can break down that information by school, by student subgroup. It’s not easy to find, though, unless you have a really great computer it might be hard to read. So I think a lot of advocacy groups would like this on the dashboard really. They would like this published more clearly.

Zaidee:

Carolyn, how common is this kind of restraint in California? I feel like every few years I kind of hear again about a school where some kind of restraint occurred and that it seemed excessive or, you know, something terrible happened at the end.

Carolyn:

It’s more common than you would think. I think we looked at some data and in 2019, the year prior to schools closing becuase of Covid there were more than 8,000 incidents reported to the state in California of seclusion, and different kinds of restraint involving, you know, nearly 3000 students. So it’s quite common. It’s more common at these private schools. Sometimes public schools will refer a child to a private school if there’s certain kind of disabilities or behavioral issues that the public school isn’t equipped to handle. So most of these incidents happen at private schools. And it’s also worth noting that these numbers are probably low. You know, I think a lot of these things don’t get reported, especially from these private schools. I think the accountability is not quite there. And, you know, with so many incidents reported, it’s really hard to, for the state to, you know, investigate every single one and follow through on every single one. And so it’s, the data is not super transparent. And I think advocacy groups have been saying that for years at the state and national levels.

Zaidee:

I know in some cases these kind of extreme tactics have, you know, ended up with really horrifying results. Can you share some of what has happened in other parts of the state?

Carolyn:

In 2018 Davis student who was 13 years old who had autism died at his private school after he was restrained for an hour and a half. Also in 2018, two students in Los Angeles at another private school had to be treated in an emergency room after suffering contusions while they were restrained. You know, going through the data there’s a few deaths every year and it’s horrifying. But it does happen. And then even for the trauma that comes from this and I don’t think there’s much evidence that it actually does improve student behavior. And so some of these students, you know, the trauma that they suffer from it can be really lasting and damaging, is what I hear from parents and from advocates.

Zaidee:

When Elyse K. got in touch with the disability rights advocates and lawyers that eventually filed the lawsuit, she found out that her children had been restrained many other times. According to school records cited in the lawsuit, her daughter was restrained 45 times over the course of a school year, and had been put in restraint holds more than five times a day on multiple occasions. Elyse was especially devastated because she’s a teacher and she comes from a family of teachers.

Elyse:

And so I really felt betrayed by my own. I don’t think I ever questioned teachers’ motives or how they dealt with things, and I think I was just, you know, kind of so used to my own environment in the teaching world and my family that I just didn’t leave room to believe that such an error could be made. And it just kind of like betrayed my whole trust in the field in a way that I wasn’t prepared to even deal with.

Zaidee:

Her immediate instinct was to pull both her kids out of Marchus school, but it wasn’t that easy.

Elyse:

Without their formal stamp of approval, they’d, you know, basically be blacklisted from any other school in the area because they’d already determined that a gen ed setting in that district wasn’t gonna work. So he’s like, you could take ’em out, but chances are they’re not getting in anywhere else. I don’t have the money for private schooling. I don’t have the bandwidth for homeschooling and trying to do it from working and as a teacher and teaching at home. So it kind of left me between a rock and a hard place, and like really mistrusting.

Zaidee:

Her kids ended up staying at the school until eighth grade when she was finally able to transfer them to a traditional public school. In the meantime, the lawsuit continued. The plaintiffs argued that the state of California did not monitor or supervise the use of restraint and seclusion as behavioral interventions at schools that serve special education students. And that school and state officials violated the rights of students forced to sit in seclusion because they were kept from receiving basic educational services. Carolyn, what does the settlement in the Marchus case require?

Carolyn:

It requires the state to very closely monitor Marchus School and make sure that the staff there, all the staff are trained in positive behavior discipline measures. So they won’t need to restrain students as much or unnecessarily. It requires much more data to be reported. And according to the Contra Costa County Office of Education which oversees the school, the school has been in compliance with this since at least 2018.

Zaidee:

How significant is this settlement? I mean, especially the training of staff.

Carolyn:

Well, the plaintiffs, the attorneys who worked on it said it’s absolutely groundbreaking that it’s unprecedented and that it sets a fantastic model for other schools to follow and for the state to follow with other schools that find themselves in this position. It really puts a focus on staff training, which is, you know, I think everyone agrees is a great thing including the school probably. So yeah, they’re really, really pleased with the result here. You know, I think if you look at discipline in California generally, it’s definitely been moving more towards, you know, positive, more positive forms of discipline, which is shown to be way more effective at improving student behavior. You know, overall it’s suspension and expulsion rates are way down. Students say the campus climate’s improved. So there’s lots of indicators that show that that works. It’s been kind of slow to work its way into this realm, especially kind of in these little secluded schools where it’s just students in special education and it’s not very closely monitored. So this is a real attempt to kind of jumpstart a movement in positive behavior there.

Zaidee:

Alyse K.’s twins now attend special education programs at traditional high schools. It’s a dramatic improvement over Marchus, but Elyse says the negative effects from their time there linger. Her daughter especially is frustrated and struggling both academically and socially.

Elyse:

She hides every day in the bathroom because she just doesn’t know just where to go to get space.

Zaidee:

Still, Elyse has hope for the future. She’s found a new career herself in special education. She doesn’t want any other children to go through what hers did.

Elyse:

Like if this is happening in California, progressive little California, it’s still happening somewhere.

Zaidee:

And she’s very, very pleased with the settlement.

Elyse:

It’s one of my proudest things besides having my babies. Because I really felt like it was, it was so much for my kids that I’ll never understand what they went through. But it was so big for them to be like, Mom, do what you gotta do. Get us out. But, you know, our friends are still there and we need to know that they’re gonna be okay. You know? And so I promised them like, Yeah, I want you to see Mom fight for you so you can learn to fight for yourself. But yeah, we don’t leave anybody behind.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. You can find Carolyn’s story at edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to our guests, Elyse K. And Carolyn Jones. Our CEO is Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the California Endowment. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

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