Vermont school district reviewing student restraint and seclusion practices

Restraint and seclusion practices are under the microscope at the Harwood Union Unified School District.
Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 7:25 AM EST
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WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - Restraint and seclusion practices are under the microscope at the Harwood Union Unified School District.

They’re only used when a student puts their peers or anyone else around them in danger. The problem was highlighted by a former paraeducator which spurred leadership in the district to look at their practices.

Brian Dalla Mura, a former special educator at Brookside Elementary School, said he witnessed restraint frequently, and the data backs it up.

National data shows HUUSD had 405 instances of restraint in 2017, the most in the state.

In the same year, there were 281 cases at Brookside Primary School in Waterbury. The number decreased to 192 in 2020-2021 and 157 in 2021-2022.

The numbers are declining and the new superintendent said that’s a focus this year.

“But when you see that high number of instances in a school district with 1,700 students, that’s cause for concern,” said Michael Leichliter, the new superintendent of the Harwood Unified Union School District.

Limiting the amount of restraint and seclusion is something Leichleiter wants to address head-on with more training for staff and having appropriate places for students to de-escalate away from their classmates.

“Having systems in place that they can feel comfortable expressing their concerns verbally,” said Leichliter.

Restraint is when physical force is administered to prevent danger to a student or those around them. It’s legal in Vermont in specific circumstances, but has been outlawed in some states.

Leichleiter has put a moratorium on specific styles of restraint, known as prone and supine, which is restraining children on their backs or stomachs.

Seclusion is a separate practice also used in some scenarios, it is when a student is under adult supervision in a confined space where danger could not continue.

At Brookside, the seclusion room was one cause for concern Brian Dalla Mura, the former special educator who highlighted the problem.

“What I saw last year was many, many students were becoming physically aggressive or violent out of fear of going into the seclusion room,” said Dalla Mura.

Leichliter says the door to the room is now removed, with the goal to make it a therapeutic space for students.

He said there have been no seclusions this school year. Dalla Mura said he’s starting to see a small culture change.

“With the elimination of the seclusion room, I think students are feeling safer and are willing to do something as simple as going for a walk with a staff member,” said Dalla Mura.

But Dalla Mura said he wants to see supine and prone restraint banned from the district in the new policy, including in last resort scenarios, saying they can be harmful and traumatic.

Jessica Kell works with Washington County Mental Health Services which contracts behavior interventionists and mental health clinicians to 17 schools in the state.

Their behavior interventionists work one on one or with pods of students, each of whom has a personalized plan and in some cases, the parent and student alike are aware that restraint and seclusion might be used as a final safety mechanism if all else failed.

These procedures are approved by the state and only with assigned students.

Not every use of restraint and seclusion is done by a contracted interventionist. Kell says school staff and interventionists have different processes but the data is combined.

“I think the concern is really real-- are the people who are doing these interventions, skilled and trained and capable and connected enough to the students they’re working with and they understand. This is a therapeutic intervention that’s built on trust, and is built on profound insight as to what this kid needs,” said Kell.

Kell says discussing the role restraint and seclusion plays in schools is a conversation worth having.

“Let’s talk about removing restraint and seclusion and then what is next, and then who comes next to help? Right? If we can get there That will be great. And I think we’re having a good conversation about that. Right? We have a larger support system that we need to build on,” said Kell.

The Harwood Union Unified School District is working with a consultant to rewrite its restraint and seclusion policy.

A draft version is considering adding trauma-informed training for staff, with the goal of reducing restraints and a focus on eliminating prone/supine restraints and seclusions, restricting them to last resort scenarios.

This is also prompting a conversation on a statewide level.

“I don’t believe that there’s any ill intent on anybody’s part. I think it’s just a matter of trying to think quickly in a situation that you don’t want to get out of control and needing to have some other tools in your toolbox to respond. And so I just, I just want to convey that there’s no villains. I really don’t believe there are any villains here. I think it’s just we need to add the legislative level. Set the expectation across the state. And so that’s, that’s what this bill aims to do,” said Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury.

Wood says she’s glad the Agency of Education has guardrails up about when restraint and seclusion would be used but notes the rules could change with administration or the State Board of Education.

A similar bill was proposed 20 years ago and failed. Wood says this bill would mirror a federal bill that has stalled in congress.