School officials: Restraint cases isolated, don't indicate wider problem
Last year, the Manchester School District had two special needs teachers charged criminally for abusing young, severely disabled children, one a 6-year-old child weighing 40 pounds, and the others, elementary age boys, one of whom is blind.
In the police investigation files of those cases obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader, there were other allegations of abuse that included keeping a child strapped to a padded wooden chair the entire school day - a regular practice for that child - and of a little girl fitted with a back brace being placed inside a Plexiglas box, her shirt pulled over a chair to ensure she couldn't get out.
School District Superintendent Debra Livingston and Assistant Superintendent Karen Burkush both maintained the cases were isolated and not indicative of a systemic problem.
"We continue to provide training to staff," Burkush said. "I believe we provide excellent programs for all our students, not just students with disabilities."
It is nearly impossible to determine how widespread the issue is in Manchester and in other schools across the state, particularly when it comes to children being restrained - either tied into a chair or held by adults to keep them from hurting themselves - or secluded, placed in a small room, sometimes closet-size, until the out-of-control behavior subsides.
That's because until last September, school districts were not required to report when they secluded children.
A law on the books since 2010 says seclusion and restraints are to be used only in cases of imminent danger to the student or someone else, but now each school must file a report with the state each time either is used and explain why.
"Seclusion" is a term for locking an uncontrollable, often emotionally, intellectually or severely disabled child, away in an enclosed space until the student is calmer.
Schools will not be required to file reports about that practice, however, until next year. Currently, there are no statistics to let the public know how common the practice is in the state.
Burkush said Manchester, the state's largest school system, does not seclude children. The district uses what it calls an "opportunity room" where a child goes with an adult for the chance to calm down and relax. It used to be called "time out." No student is left alone, she said.
One of these "opportunity rooms" is "padded" and located in the basement of the Webster Elementary School where young out-of-control children are placed.
Burkush said sometimes children are in such states of anxiety they bang their heads on the floor or against the walls. Often, the children cannot talk so their disruptive behavior is their means of communicating. To keep them safe, wall coverings and texture were added to the basement walls, which are concrete, Burkush said.
Restraining a child can mean strapping him into a chair, or an adult holding a child in a bear hug until he calms down. Or, in a case of one Mont Vernon mom's child, two adults holding her daughter's arms up and her head down for two minutes, to keep her safe and stop her from banging her head against a bathroom wall. Bruises were left on the child's arm as a result.
"We believe they broke her spirit that day," the mother testified at a legislative hearing last year.
The children who are being restrained or placed in separate rooms, for the most part, are young - the average age is 7, according to the DRC - and with special needs.
Mayor Ted Gatsas, chairman of the Manchester Board of School Committee, said he was shocked to learn of the treatment of the special education students, particularly the case of the child being placed in a Plexiglas box and of another student in the same self-contained classroom who was strapped to the small wooden chair the entire time he was in school. When police investigated the case, the chair could not be found.
Burkush said the Plexiglas box is no longer in use at the Jewett Street School. "It was well-intentioned," she said. The clear cubicle with padded walls was known by the sweet-sounding sobriquet as the "cozy corner."
It was removed after teacher Donna Varney, 56, was charged with assaulting the 6-year-old. According to the Manchester police investigation, Varney put pepper on the child's tongue, soap in her mouth and flicked a book in the child's face when she hyperextended her neck backward. Varney was sentenced to seven days in jail and had to relinquish her teaching credentials.
Art Beaudry, a school committee member since 2002, said the problem has always been the lack of training and staffing. Training, he said, is needed in dealing with students with emotional behavioral disorders. And, he said, the district needs to place a student out-of-district if it is unable to provide the child with what's needed. That, however, can cost up to $150,000 annually per child.
This school year, the district spent $41.89 million to educate 2,681 special needs students, about 26.7 percent of its overall $159.6 million budget.
Burkush said 76 special education students are placed out of district at a cost of $2.74 million annually. The number of students in out-of-district placements jumps to 104 when those receiving part-time services are included.