Behind closed doors: When it comes to seclusion and restraint, Colorado schools ‘are investigating themselves’

Nearly every day, Brenna Wann saw staff members take young students, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the “quiet room” of her Colorado elementary school.

“They get in there, and then they’re mad they’re in there,” said Wann, who left her job as a classroom aide for students with emotional disabilities in early February. “You watch them, and they’re like a caged animal in there. They’re pacing back and forth. If they see you in the window, they’ll come and attack the door and want to be let out.”

Shutting a student in a room, called seclusion, is an allowable form of restraint in Colorado for students who display violent or dangerous behavior. State rules say it should only be used “in an emergency and with extreme caution.” The same applies to physical restraint, which means using physical force to restrict a student’s movement for more than five minutes.

A Chalkbeat investigation found that weak laws and oversight have contributed to wide variations in how Colorado’s 10 largest school districts report restraint and seclusion, making it impossible to get a full picture of an increasingly controversial practice that could harm students.

Many affected students have disabilities. Advocates and others, including the U.S. Department of Education, have raised concerns about whether seclusion and restraint are even effective at curbing problematic student behavior.

Citing open records law, Chalkbeat requested copies of the districts’ state-mandated annual reviews that are meant to ensure they are “properly administering” restraint and seclusion.

Some were several pages long and full of details, such as color-coded pie charts showing the age, ethnicity, and disability status of the students restrained and secluded. Other reviews were just a few sentences with no data at all. One of the largest districts hadn’t yet completed a review for the school year that ended nine months ago. Two of the 10 districts refused to release their reviews publicly, citing student confidentiality, though one of those later released some data.

No state agency collects the reports, meaning there is little oversight.

“Essentially, the districts are investigating themselves,” said Alison Butler, the director of legal services for Disability Law Colorado, the state’s federally designated advocacy agency for people with disabilities. “They’re giving themselves their own report card and nobody else sees it.”

Anecdotal evidence points to the practices being more common than district data indicate. The federal government has raised similar concerns. A recent audit of federal restraint and seclusion data by the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted the likelihood of a “pervasive pattern of underreporting of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.”

Wann, who left her job after a particularly troubling seclusion incident, suspects that was happening at the school where she worked, Cherry Drive Elementary in Thornton. In her four months there, she said she wasn’t asked to write a single report. As far as procedure, Wann said, “the only thing they told me was to call for backup.”

A spokesman for Thornton-based Adams 12 Five Star Schools said the district is investigating Wann’s claims. Only teachers and administrators, not aides like Wann, write reports, he said.

“We take the concerns raised seriously, and we’re responding to them and investigating,” said Joe Ferdani, the district’s chief communications officer. “If the outcome indicates the opportunity for refinement in any of our processes, we’ll certainly do that.”

Last year, Adams 12 reported 121 seclusions among its 39,000 students, according to the district’s written review. That number stands in stark contrast to the near-daily seclusions Wann said she saw happen this year at a single elementary school.

“A good day,” she said, “is when it wouldn’t happen.”

‘We were never called’

State rules say schools may use restraint and seclusion only when a student’s behavior poses a “serious, probable, imminent” threat of bodily injury to themselves or others. That includes situations in which a student causes a threat by abusing or destroying property.

Chalkbeat interviewed officials from several Colorado school districts about when they use restraint and seclusion. All of them chose their words carefully, emphasizing that restraint and seclusion are used as a last resort when students are “escalated.”

That could look like a student kicking, biting, or throwing punches at staff or classmates, they said. Some students will tip over desks or throw chairs. Others will run from the classroom or hurt themselves by banging their head on a wall, for example.

Restraint and seclusion should never be used as a form of discipline, state rules say, or to gain compliance. But advocates of reform say that’s sometimes exactly how they are used.

“A lot of times, it starts with a student refusing to comply with an adult directive,” said Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities. “The adults don’t always have the patience, the tools, or the training to really help de-escalate the situation. It’s kind of like, ‘No, you are going to do it, you are going to do it,’ pushing the kiddo’s buttons until it ends up in physical force.”

The annual reviews produced by Colorado school districts don’t include information about what preceded incidents of restraint and seclusion, making it impossible to conclude from those reviews alone whether districts are following state rules or not. A joint investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found thousands of incidents in that state in which students were secluded despite no documented safety threat. In response, the Illinois State Board of Education just voted to prohibit the use of locked seclusion rooms in schools.

In 2017, Colorado lawmakers passed the bill that mandated annual reviews. It aimed to do three things: collect better data on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, establish a process for families to complain about its misuse, and limit a particularly dangerous kind of restraint, called prone restraint, where a student is held face-down on the ground.

That part of the bill struck a chord with lawmakers. Across the United States, and here in Colorado, children have stopped breathing and died from being held in prone restraints.

But the data collection part of the bill was important, too — and on that issue, advocates said they didn’t get everything they wanted. They had long heard anecdotal stories from parents who were never told their children were being restrained or secluded at school.

One mother told lawmakers that her son was restrained five times at school, but administrators only informed her of one instance. She learned about the others when she requested a copy of her son’s records to figure out why he was “not thriving” in school.

“None of this was ever reported to us,” the parent, Laura Ayres, said. That included incidents in which the school nurse had monitored and documented her son’s ability to breathe while he was being held in a physical restraint. “We were never called, except for that one time.”

State Rep. Susan Lontine, the Denver Democrat who sponsored the bill, wanted more state oversight and detailed reporting by districts, with those reports to be posted on the state education department’s website. But she encountered pushback related to concerns about the staff time needed to collect and review the reports, and about student confidentiality in small districts. As such, the final bill did not include those requirements.

That decision set the stage for today’s hit-or-miss reporting.

“The department can only collect data that the legislature requires us to collect, statutorily,” said Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer. “The legislature hasn’t required the state to collect restraint and seclusion data from districts.”

Inconsistent reporting

With no watchdog, the reporting by districts is all over the place.

Chalkbeat requested the annual written reviews for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years from Colorado’s 10 largest school districts, which educate more than half of the state’s students.

Some districts report hundreds of incidents of restraint and seclusion per year. Others report far fewer. Some differentiate between physical restraint and seclusion, while others lump them together. And while some districts track all instances of physical restraint, others only count physical restraints that meet the legal definition of lasting five minutes or more.

Often, the same students are restrained by adults or blocked in rooms again and again. Some districts report how many students are affected by these practices and some do not.

DistrictTotal number of restraints 2018-19Restraints less than 5 minutesRestraints longer than 5 minutesTotal number of seclusions in 2018-19Total district K-12 enrollment
Denver Public Schools29524847The district banned seclusion91,998
Jeffco Public SchoolsAnnual report not completed84,623
Douglas County School District352The district does not have a breakdown for how many of the restraints were less than 5 minutes and how many were longer than 5 minutes7967,591
Cherry Creek School District51The district does not track restraints less than 5 minutes51313*55,791
Aurora Public SchoolsDistrict refused to release report, citing student confidentiality39,892
Adams 12 Five Star Schools63451812139,282
St. Vrain Valley School DistrictNo data included in annual report32,639
Boulder Valley School District27**224The district does not track which incidents are restraint and which are seclusion31,169
Poudre School District17The district did not provide data on restraints less than 5 minutes1710130,463
Colorado Springs School District 1124816The district banned seclusion26,395

* 113 of these were restraint + seclusion
** For one incident, the time was noted as “not specified”
Graphic credit: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest district, recorded among the highest numbers: 352 incidents of physical restraint and 79 incidents of seclusion in a district of about 67,500 students. But Douglas County officials said they’re meticulous about documentation; the district’s restraint count includes all physical restraints, even if they only lasted five seconds.

“It’s important for us to be transparent about what’s happening with children in schools,” said Nancy Ingalls, who oversees special education for the district.

Colorado Springs School District 11, the state’s tenth-largest, posted among the lowest numbers: just 24 incidents of restraint for 26,400 students and no incidents of seclusion. The district banned seclusion in 2018, though officials said it hadn’t been used for some time.

Instead, District 11 uses what it calls “retreat”: Students can be put in a room to calm down, but they cannot be alone with the door shut; an adult must be with them at all times.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has a similar policy. It banned seclusion in 2019 in favor of “monitored seclusion,” which means an adult must be present in the room.

The policies for the other eight large districts allow seclusion. Cherry Creek School District, the state’s fourth-largest district, reported the most incidents of seclusion last school year: 313 for about 55,800 students. More than a third of those incidents involved a combination of physical restraint and seclusion, according to the district’s annual review.

Tony Poole, the district’s assistant superintendent of special populations, said secluding a student in what the district calls “time-out rooms” or other spaces can be less traumatic than physically restraining a student, especially if the student might be triggered by being touched. As soon as the student is calm, the door is opened and the student is let out.

“It’s not stuffing kids in a closet,” Poole said. “These kids, at times, have a full classroom to themselves.” That’s because the district counts it as a seclusion if school staff evacuate other students from a classroom to give the agitated student space to calm down.

Other large districts are opaque when it comes to restraint and seclusion.

Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado’s second-largest district, hasn’t reported anything for 2018-19. The district said it expects to produce its report in March, 10 months after the school year ended. In the 2017-18 school year, it reported 38 incidents of restraint and 220 incidents of seclusion.

The fifth-largest district, Aurora Public Schools, and the ninth-largest, Poudre School District, refused to release their annual reviews in response to open records requests. Both districts said their reviews contain confidential information about students that can’t be shared publicly. Chalkbeat asked if the districts could redact sensitive information, but they refused.

Poudre School District later released a tally of how many students were restrained and secluded.

Even though the St. Vrain Valley School District, the state’s seventh-largest district, wrote reports for both 2017-18 and 2018-19, they contain no data. The takeaway from the 2018-19 report, which is just seven sentences long, is that the district is doing everything right.

The youngest students

From the reports that do contain data, one thing is clear: Restraint and seclusion is most often happening to young students — 5-, 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds — with disabilities.

District leaders offered several explanations: Young students are still getting accustomed to school, and haven’t yet learned how to manage big feelings. Schools are also seeing an increase in students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, sometimes as a result of medical conditions and sometimes as a result of trauma.

Young students are also small enough for school staff to handle. When middle and high school students have explosive behaviors, teachers often rely on school-based police officers to respond, said Ashley Toomey, a special education coordinator in the Adams 12 district.

Officials in every district, whether they used restraint and seclusion a lot or a little, pointed to the same strategy for reducing it: de-escalation techniques that nip students’ behavior in the bud before it becomes violent or dangerous. The company that trains many Colorado school district staff emphasizes that prevention is the key to reducing restraint and seclusion.

But it’s not easy to do. Judy Gudvangen, the special education director for District 11, which reported the fewest incidents of the 10 largest districts last year, said all special education staff there are trained in de-escalation. Schools are grouped into clusters, and each cluster is supported by a team that includes several behavior specialists, instructional coaches, psychologists, nurses, and others who can respond to difficult student behavior.

If a student is struggling, Gudvangen said, the cluster team will visit the school, observe the student, figure out what is triggering the disruptive behavior, tailor de-escalation techniques for that student, and teach the student’s teachers and aides how to do them.

“I can’t say restraints never happen,” she said. “But we do it in as limited a way as possible.”

There’s a reason for that: Parents whose students have been restrained or secluded report that the experiences can be traumatic, and even dangerous, for their children.

Dawn Howard’s granddaughter, a 6-year-old kindergartener in District 11, is frequently put in “holds” to calm her down. (Howard doesn’t know how many of these “holds” constitute restraint because she doesn’t know how many last five minutes or more.)

Howard said she said she understands the reason for the holds. Her granddaughter’s behavior can be challenging. After a recent incident, Howard showed up to find every desk, every chair, every pencil and eraser thrown around her granddaughter’s classroom, she said.

“It took me an hour, with help, to put the room back together,” Howard said.

Howard said her granddaughter doesn’t seem to mind the holds. She has only been upset about them a few times, including once when she said an aide twisted her arm and hurt her.

But Howard is growing concerned that the holds might be doing emotional harm. Her granddaughter spent much of her infancy in a car seat while her mother used drugs, Howard said. She imagines her granddaughter strapped in, unable to move, crying for a bottle or to be held. Howard said she wonders if being squeezed tightly during a hold is surfacing that trauma.

“What if that’s taking her back to that place in her brain?” Howard said.

‘This was not OK’

The incident that led to Wann quitting her job as an aide at Thornton’s Cherry Drive Elementary happened in late January.

She was in the quiet room with a student who had gone there voluntarily when another boy came in. The boy was agitated. Wann doesn’t know why, but she said he started slamming the door to the quiet room over and over again. He was yelling and cursing, she said, and as she tried to calm him, he took off his shoes and threw them at her, then darted into the hall.

He ran around outside before ending up in a foyer between two sets of front doors. Wann and another staff member were with him, but he wasn’t responding to de-escalation techniques. When he started spitting at them, Wann said she and the other staff member left the foyer to stand sentry outside the doors. The boy, she said, was blocked in the foyer alone.

“In the meantime, the half-day kindergarteners are being picked up,” Wann said. “So you’ve got all these parents and grandparents watching us as we’re blocking this kid in the front entryway.”

Wann estimates he was in there, barefoot and fuming, for more than half an hour.

The incident itself was troubling, Wann said, but even more troubling that no one asked for her account of what happened.

“I’m in the thick of it,” she said. “Shouldn’t I be writing the incident report?”

District officials said a report was completed for this incident. Toomey, the special education coordinator for Adams 12, explained the reporting process in general: When a student is restrained or secluded, a teacher or administrator will write an incident report. It will include a description of what triggered the student’s behavior, the de-escalation techniques that were tried, how long the student was restrained or secluded, and the student’s reaction.

She said the school gives the reports to parents within five days. They’re also turned in to the district’s behavior specialists, who review them for trends or to identify training needs.

If an aide was involved in an incident of restraint or seclusion, Toomey said the teacher and the aide will often fill out the report together. If that’s not possible, she said, the teacher will write the report and then circle back with the aide to make sure all the facts are correct.

But Wann said that didn’t happen in this case. The incident in the foyer also changed the way Wann views seclusion. In the days afterward, she apologized to one of her students who was frequently put in the quiet room. Wann said she herself had sometimes blocked him in.

“I said, ‘This was not OK. What I did to you was not OK,’” Wann said. “He looked at me like I was a superhero almost, like, ‘Really? Oh my gosh.’

“These kids,” she said, “just deserve better.”