Vernon Board of Education mulls restraint and seclusion policy for students with disabilities As the Vernon Board of Education looks to pass a restraint and seclusion policy for students with disabilities, public perception of these policies sometimes contrasts strikingly with reality, school administrator says.
PHOTOS BY NICOLE M. WELLS
Vernon Township School District Superintendent Karen D'Avino speaks as BOE Vice President Justin Annunziata, left, and Board President Brad Sparta listen. Assistant Superintendent
By Nicole M. Wells
For those who might not be familiar, the practices of restraint and seclusion, in an academic setting, aren’t about pushing a mouthy student into a row of lockers and improvising handcuffs out of gym class jump ropes. Nor do they involve forcing a child who didn’t do their homework to stand alone in the corner of an empty classroom for hours on end. In any academic use of restraint and seclusion, these are simply scenarios that would not occur, Hardyston Township Schools Chief School Administrator Michael Ryder said. Far from the nightmarish conjuring of parental imaginations, restraint and seclusion are behavioral-modification techniques that the state has indicated can be used on students with disabilities in an emergency situation, if they are considered a danger to themselves or others, Ryder said. “Nobody wants to put their hands on a student,” he said. “And if they do, they don’t belong in a school.” Signed by former Gov. Chris Christie,the state law that indicates when and how restraint and seclusion can be used in the classroom was passed in January 2018. Since that time, school districts have been revising, and, in some cases, newly adopting policies, in keeping with the state law’s provisions. In Vernon, the Board of Education introduced a restraint and seclusion policy for students with disabilities during its regular meeting May 16 that included a parental consent option for the practice of seclusion. Mark Cilli said that seclusion is used as a last resort when a situation with a student is out of control. “My concern is that, with this consent form, in some cases, or maybe all cases, we’re removing that last resort and I’m concerned that staff and teachers and aides will no longer have that available to them,” he said. “I’m concerned about what might happen.” Using restraint without seclusion sometimes causes the other students in the class to have to leave the room, Cilli said, which is something that the board should be monitoring. “If other students are forced to leave the room and interrupt their learning process, and if it’s affecting other student in a negative way, I think we need to keep track of that to make sure that we’re still providing a safe and strong learning environment for all students involved,” he said. “I’m just concerned about every other student in the classroom.” Theresa Scura Coughlin, chairperson of the district’s Special Services Committee, said she was not pleased with the direction the policy had taken either. “To me, it (the consent option) lightens it, and it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because it’s either use the practice or don’t, and if we’re going to use the practice, then have the parents write a letter saying, ‘I don’t want my child secluded,’” she said. “Honor that, because, if not, I just find it concerning that it went the other way.” According to Superintendent Karen D’Avino, the topic of seclusion is an uncomfortable one for many people and there are valid concerns about its implementation. “This is not a situation where we are assessing reading levels incrementally throughout the school year,” D’Avino said. “We are assessing behaviors multiple times throughout the day. That’s why the consent form was created to reflect the discussion of this board and with feedback from the public, to ensure that only students whose parents have consented for the use of seclusion as a crisis management procedure (are secluded).” In a review of policies from several area school districts, including Sparta, Newton, Sussex-Wantage, Hardyston and West Milford, all spelled out the very specific criteria that must be met for restraint or seclusion to be used on a student. Going a step further, Hardyston’s policy states that restraint or seclusion “should never be used as punishment or discipline, as a means of coercion or retaliation or as a convenience.” Seclusion, therefore, would not be an option for dealing with a student who is merely breaking the rules by getting up out of his or her seat. In a memo from the state Department of Education, John Worthington, director of the Office of Special Education Policy and Procedure defines physical restraint as, “the use of a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move all or a portion of his or her body.” Seclusion is defined by the state as, “the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” Like restraint, seclusion is only used in a situation where the student is at risk of hurting themselves or others. Director of Special Services for Sparta Township Public Schools Dr. Danielle Hamblin said that restraint is used in less than 1 percent of incidents in Sparta schools and that individual behavior plans are continuously monitored and evaluated based on the needs of the students. Ryder said that the goal is to prevent situations that may require the use of restraint or seclusion from happening in the first place by knowing the individual students and what works, and doesn’t work, for them. In Newton, Superintendent Dr. G. Kennedy Greene said that the district’s policy has been in place since September 2018 and that it has been used successfully since its adoption. Greene also said the total number of incidents in which restraint or seclusion have been used is unknown. To maintain compliance with state law, Sussex-Wantage Regional School District’s policy was updated in August 2018. According to Superintendent Michael Gallo, the policy was initially put into place in 2011. Gallo said that the policy references seclusion, however, the district has not used seclusion as a therapeutic technique, opting instead to use verbal de-escalation techniques. Vernon’s proposed policy on restraint and seclusion passed on first reading by a 4-3 vote, with Cilli, Mitchell and Scura Coughlin voting against the measure. Michael Peek was absent from the meeting. Second reading of the policy will take place at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at Lounsberry Hollow Middle School, located at 30 Sammis Road.