This article was originally published by WFYI.
Audits conducted by the Indiana Department of Education show some schools do not accurately report how often they forcibly isolate and restrain students. The findings confirm a WFYI investigation published in June that found similar discrepancies.
Indiana lawmakers approved legislation a decade ago that was intended to regulate and curb the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. The law states these interventions should be used rarely, and only as a last resort in situations where the safety of students or others is threatened.
But the WFYI investigation found the state’s lack of oversight means it’s unclear if the law had its intended effect.
Seclusion and restraint are used thousands of times per year in Indiana schools, and the interventions carry the risk of injury and can harm students’ mental well-being. Students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to these measures.
The IDOE began conducting audits — which are required under a state rule — following inquiries from WFYI. The agency had no record of an audit being conducted prior to this year.
The audits were quietly published as part of the Indiana Commission on Seclusion and Restraint’s agenda for a public meeting Wednesday. Commission members discussed the findings during the meeting — the first time they’ve met this year.
Audits find discrepancies in number of incidents
Most of the schools audited were able to provide the department with records that matched their data reporting. Still, each of the three audits identified discrepancies between the number of incidents of restraint and seclusion reported to the state, and the number of records of those incidents kept by several schools.
In each of the audits, the IDOE concluded a need for “enhanced record keeping” by schools and “improvement” on how incidents are reported to the state.
Schools are required to report how often they seclude and restrain students to the IDOE. The department selected at random 3 percent of schools that reported at least one incident of seclusion or restraint, and then it asked those schools to provide the reports associated with the incidents they reported to the state.
In the audit for the 2020-21 school year, nine of the 21 schools included failed to provide IDOE with records of seclusion and restraint incidents.
For example, Clarksville Elementary School — located just outside Louisville — reported 51 incidents of seclusion to the IDOE. But they could not provide the state with any records of those incidents.
Similarly, South Side Elementary School — part of the East Noble School Corporation located north of Fort Wayne — reported 40 incidents of restraint and 76 incidents of seclusion that year, but they could not provide the department with a single incident report.
Members of the state’s Commission on Seclusion and Restraint expressed concern about the lack of records to IDOE staff.
“We had heard from a couple of different schools across the three years that it was a product of one person kept the records, that person was no longer with the school and nobody could find or access those records,” said Stephen Balko, an IDOE employee and chair of the commission.
Kim Dodson, a commission member and CEO of the Arc of Indiana — an advocacy organization for people with disabilities — told WFYI she wasn’t satisfied with that explanation.
In the 2021-22 audit, officials at three unnamed schools told the state they were missing records. And employees at another school submitted incident reports that did not match the data that was reported to the department.
In the audit for the 2022-23 school year, five of the 27 schools audited by the IDOE failed to submit documents that aligned with what they reported to the state. The IDOE did not identify the five schools.
But the audit shows that Harrison Parkway Elementary School — part of the Hamilton Southeastern School Corporation — reported 244 seclusion incidents and 205 restraints to the IDOE for the 2022-23 school year. The school submitted only 255 incident reports to the state.
Rachel Deaton, a commission member and director of training and legislation for the Autism Society of Indiana, expressed concern that children had been secluded and restrained hundreds of times at one elementary school.
“That’s an incredible number there,” Deaton said. “Why do they have such a huge number? And how is it compared to other schools? I would think that that would have to be looked into a little bit more.”
The audits did not address hundreds of schools that reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion; only schools that reported at least one were considered for the review.
Commission member Nicole Hicks said she continues to doubt the veracity of this data.
“I still think that there is… a miss in whatever way of getting schools to understand the need to capture this data, and to report it correctly,” she said. “I do think that these numbers are not accurate. Still.”
More training for schools, more state review
Commission members agreed that local school administrators need additional training on what constitutes a seclusion or a restraint, and their obligation to report these incidents to the state. Balko said the department would look into training resources and whether the commission could create a model form that schools could use to document these incidents.
Balko and other members also agreed that they need to meet more often than the statutory requirement of once per year.
“I’m not saying we’re starting over. But it does seem like we’ve hit a low point in awareness of all this, the process,” Hicks said. “And it would be nice to just revamp that.”
Since WFYI published its investigation, several state lawmakers have called for solutions and increased accountability for schools.
In an interview after the commission meeting, Dodson said she’s pushing for legislation to clarify the state definition of seclusion and restraint and ban the use of these practices in any situation other than a real emergency.
“We also need to make sure that [schools] have the tools to be more proactive in helping students not get to the point that they’re doing something that the school feels they need to be secluded or restrained,” Dodson said.