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Schools grappling with uncontrollable students

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 13. 2015 10:23PM

Nearly 50 children in New Hampshire's public schools were reportedly injured in 916 incidents when educators restrained them, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Education.

But some of those numbers from 2013-14 - the latest year available - are unreliable and do not give a clear picture of what is happening in New Hampshire schools, according to the Disability Rights Center (DRC) in Concord and Laconia School District Superintendent Terri Forsten.

Forsten said five injuries recorded in 16 restraint instances at Woodland Heights Elementary School in Laconia were to staff - not students - and all were minor scratches and bruises. And, she said, those 16 restraint instances involved mainly one student.

Before last September, school districts were not required to provide details about restraint incidents. And while the state's statistics are the most recent available, DRC policy director Michael Skibbie, whose agency pushed for a more restrictive law concerning using restraints and seclusion on schoolchildren, said the numbers are unreliable.

Broad definition

School districts interpreted the definition of "restraint" so broadly that some reported they didn't restrain any children at all, when they had, he said.

A law enacted in September now calls for a report to be filed and parents/guardians notified the same day whenever a restraint is used, which is only where the student or others are in imminent risk of bodily injury. The law, for the first time, also covers seclusion, when out-of-control children are placed in small rooms until they regain composure. School district reports on seclusion incidents, however, are not required until next year.

Dr. Judith D. Fillion, director of the state education department's Division of Program Support, which deals with credentialing of teachers and investigations of their conduct, said there have been 27 investigations under RSA 126-U, the restraint and seclusion law. Twenty-five of them were opened since the law took effect on Sept. 30.

One educator's certificate was surrendered/revoked as a result of one of those investigations, she said.The new law is intended to shine a light on New Hampshire schools' use of restraint and seclusion which, according to DRC, is mostly used on very young children - the average age is 7 - and oftentimes special needs students.

By the numbers

The 2013-14 school year was the first time school districts were required to report the number of injuries. In 2011-2012, school districts only had to report the number of restraints used, which totaled 1,737. For the 2012-13 school year, 1,167 uses were reported.

For the 2013-14 school year, the Manchester School District - the largest in the state - reported restraining children 67 times. Nashua, the second largest, restrained 39 children. Hollis Primary School reported using restraints 46 times. None of the districts reported any injuries.

Webster Elementary School in Webster reported staff used restraints seven times, causing nine injuries. Cutler Elementary School in Swanzey reported using restraints 26 times, resulting in seven injuries.

Cutler Principal Ronald Upton was stunned at the numbers. "I'm not aware of this at all," said Upton, who became the school's principal this past school year.

He said in prior years the school used to remove a physically disruptive child - one who was picking up a desk and throwing it, for instance - to what was called the "Research Room" until the child could wind down.

New rules

Upton said since the new law took effect, essentially banning seclusion, the school's policy is to evacuate a room until the child calms down. Sometimes the child does, sometimes not.

"Just personally, I don't buy into that philosophy," of secluding an elementary age child, he said. Upton previously worked at the high school level and said there's a difference when an incident involves a 250-pound student compared to a 50-pound third-grader.


He said he doesn't know how many times a classroom has been evacuated, but no one has been injured, secluded or restrained this year.


Eric Johnson, principal of Woodland Heights Elementary School in Laconia, said he was unaware that for the 2013-14 school year, 16 incidents of children being restrained at the school were reported, with five injuries resulting.

Johnson said this, too, is his first year as principal of the school, although he has worked at other schools as well. He said there are times when a child has to be restrained because he is a danger to himself or others, but he said the school has a strict policy it follows and reports have to be filed with the superintendent.

He said the school uses Crisis Prevention Interventions (CPI) - verbal techniques to de-escalate the situation. When that doesn't work, the child is sent to the "student support" room, where he meets with a behavioral specialist to talk about what is going on. If that doesn't work, then the child is sent to see Johnson.

"I haven't restrained a child this year," he said.

And the school does not seclude any child. All special needs children are mainstreamed, he said.

Being open

Forsten said the incidents reported at Woodland Heights involves mainly one child who this year has grown and is doing well.

"You have a child who is significantly disabled needing support, and you have to keep them safe. If the child continues to lash out, unfortunately, sometimes staff is hurt in the process," she said. "We don't use the practice of seclusion."

A child may be removed from a class, but the student is brought to a small office - a quieter setting - where a specially trained staff member talks with him or her about what has happened. Staff is trained in the use of CPI, which sometimes can mean having a child take a teacher's hand and walk over to another quiet place until the crisis has subsided.


"You can't have a classroom of 20 to 24 students with somebody who has a tantrum and is tipping over desks," Forsten said. "That's a child who is really struggling."


Laconia's practice is to work in teams - no one is in isolation - and, she explained, after an incident, the team gets together to see what happened, what worked and what should be done to help the child in the future.


Forsten said she doesn't know whether the new law is beneficial because it has yet to become common practice.

But the idea that school districts are massively using restraints is not accurate, she said.

"We are about taking care of children," she said. "We are about educating them. We don't want to do this sort of thing. It's all about helping that child and supporting that child when in the midst of a crisis."

Different opinions

She disagrees with Skibbie, who believes the practice of restraints and seclusion is pervasive. "I haven't seen that," said Forsten, a former special education teacher who also worked in a psychiatric hospital for two years.


Forsten believes a filmmaker should follow an education team dealing with one challenging student. That would show the amount of time and hours the team spends working to put together a plan for the child. "It is so much more strategic than it was 15 to 20 years ago," she said.

Allen Pardy, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators Inc., said the new law "is a hot potato. It is a hot issue."


Like Forsten, he believes a small number of children are restrained. He said the enactment of RSA: 126 U "really changed the game" and that right now a committee consisting of representatives from various groups including his organization, DRC, unions. school districts, etc., are trying to flush out the rules. "It's very complicated because the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services is involved, and they have their own rules and interpretations."


Under the law, he said teachers can stop a child who is running rampant around a classroom, barricading himself in a room or barging into classrooms. Some educators, he said, believe they have to allow that because they are not supposed to lay a hand on a child. That just isn't the case, he said.

"There are cases where some kids can be extremely dangerous," he said. It's about how a teacher keeps them out of harm's way - for that student and others students. Teachers, he said, really are caught in a bind.

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