Use of seclusion rooms remains focus of debate at Morris Jeff charter school

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This small reading and storage room off the Morris Jeff library is one option used by teachers to isolate students. Photo by Matt Davis

UPDATE: The following report contains new material made available to The Lens since the article was first posted. School principal Patricia Perkins and board president Aesha Rasheed criticized the article in terms reflected in comments below from Rasheed and former board president Broderick Bagert. The updates noted in the text draw on a Sept. 15 interview with Perkins and Rasheed and on phone calls or emails from other parties to the dispute. 

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Joyce Giles says she never imagined elementary school administrators would hurt her 6-year-old son, Ty’ryan.

“He went to crying, and said, ‘Mama, they bothering me, they pulling on my clothes and they putting me in that room and turning my light out on me,’ ” she said, recalling the boy’s outburst as she dropped him off at Morris Jeff Community School in Mid-City one morning.

Yes, Ty’ryan admitted to his mother, he had been acting out in the classroom. But, like other parents of misbehaving children, Giles was shocked to learn that the school’s response was, as she put it, to pull and drag her son into a darkened room and make him sit there alone.  Giles said her son, who shows signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, suffered psychological trauma from the harsh punishment, a response to a behavioral problem not listed in the school’s discipline code.

Parental concern has crested nationally over use of  “time-out” or “seclusion” rooms, particularly for disciplining students with special needs. A 13-year-old Georgia student with ADHD hanged himself after being put in a seclusion room in 2004, leading federal and state lawmakers to clamor for stricter regulations.

Under orders from Louisiana’s legislators, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is now drafting a set of rules for seclusion rooms and the use of restraint on students.

It’s unclear how many schools in New Orleans are using seclusion rooms. Morris Jeff is the only one at which parents were willing to speak to The Lens.

According to a 2007 Clemson University study, 24 states have laws on seclusion rooms and restraint. Louisiana is one of them, though the rules for implementing the law are still being drawn up. While seclusion rooms are legal, and left to the jurisdiction of individual school districts, the law makes clear that students are subject to seclusion only when they pose an imminent threat to themselves or to someone else, and only as a last resort.

Seclusion should never be used as punishment, or for the convenience of staff, the law states.

NOTE: Morris Jeff officials said they don’t remove disruptive students from class as a form of punishment, nor do they use the term “seclusion room,” preferring instead “time-out room.” Therefore, the practice would not be listed among disciplinary procedures.

The practice is forbidden at schools directly run or chartered by the Orleans Parish School Board. The board’s unified code of conduct equates seclusion and locked isolation with corporal punishment – which is illegal. “Corporal punishment refers to intentional application of physical pain as a method of changing behavior…it also includes the use of seclusion, i.e., locked isolation, and inappropriate restraint,” the code states.

Along with the board, the state-run Recovery School District either runs or charters nearly all other schools in New Orleans.

The district’s code of conduct, applicable to both directly run and chartered schools, does not refer to corporal punishment or seclusion. But special-needs compliance officer Linda Brown, who served last year as a charter-school coordinator for special needs students, said that the use of such rooms is not unusual.

“We can provide for children what we call a safe room,” she said. “I don’t use the word ‘seclusion’ because it’s not like you are secluding a child. You are providing a space for a child to do two things – calm down, and get back in the classroom. That’s how I look at the rooms.”

Charter schools, with their greater autonomy, have some leeway in crafting discipline policies, as long as those policies are consistent with the state’s goal of rewarding positive behavior as a way of cutting down on suspensions and expulsions.

Morris Jeff, which was chartered by the Recovery School District, serves pre-kindergarten through third-grade students. It lists standard disciplinary offenses and consequences, as outlined by state law, in its student handbook, but it makes no mention of seclusion or safe rooms.

Neither does the revised discipline policy that was submitted to the state Department of Education at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

However, Principal Patricia Perkins confirmed these practices in a March interview after complaints arose about the practice.

“There are a lot of different ways to have time out,” she said. “That is one of our most successful ways of working with children who have had a meltdown, or a disobeying of a rule.”

In some cases, children are told to sit in a time-out section of the classroom, Perkins said, but in other cases, they are taken to areas in the building: the secretary’s office or the library. The room students were taken to last year is now being used as an office, Perkins said.

Putting them in an empty room is what agitates Giles and other Morris Jeff parents, but Perkins said it’s sometimes necessary.

“If a child is acting out in a manner where he or she could hurt someone, such as throwing a chair, or running away, a safe place is needed in order to intervene and assist the child in de-escalating the situation,” Perkins said. “It’s essentially a room that doesn’t have any furniture or stimuli. If a child is very aggressive, meaning a danger to self or others, then we might shut the door, but the child was never left alone.”

Perkins said that a faculty member ordinarily is either in the room or just outside of it, and all her teachers are trained in crisis intervention, and well equipped to handle extreme situations, Perkins added.

Complaints about the practice surfaced at the charter board’s Feb. 22 and March 17 meetings. Parents said better trained staff wouldn’t resort to seclusion and complained that, like Giles, they weren’t notified when that their children were might be subjected to it.

NOTE: The changes above reflect this correction: The parental complaint  was that they weren’t notified at the start of the school year that their children, if disruptive, might be separated from classmates. Morris Jeff officials said parents were always notified after children required this treatment, and parents confirmed this communication.

When school leaders at the March meeting handed out results of a recent parent-satisfaction survey, Rhonda Williams, the grandmother of a 5-year-old former Morris Jeff student said parents who gave the school favorable marks on the survey didn’t know about the rooms.

“When you gave out that survey, did you give the parents a written policy of discipline? Did you tell the parents that you are locking children in what you call a seclusion room for more than 10 minutes at a time? Did you tell your parents that? No you didn’t,” she told the board. “It’s dark. It has no furniture in it. Your child may knock and ask to go to the restroom and they’re told ‘Wait till you finish your time.’ And they wet themselves,” she said.

Williams said her granddaughter had been locked in the room more than once.

“You lock dogs up. You don’t lock human beings up,” she said.

Loria Joseph, the grandmother of a 6-year-old who attended Morris Jeff last year, said that her granddaughter was roughly handled when being placed in the room.

“My grandbaby was locked in the room. She said they twisted her arm, twisted her leg, sat on top of her,” Joseph said. “She came home screaming. One lady saw it and called us and told us. We would have never known what was going on.”

Joseph also alleged that school officials called law enforcement on her granddaughter after she was let out of the room.

While Perkins declined to speak to individual discipline situations, she said Morris Jeff faculty members do not harm children.

“Did I ever pull or drag a child? No. We don’t drag children around here. Did I ever lock a child in a room by themselves? No, we don’t lock children in rooms,” she said. “Did we ever use a time out room as a last resort for a child who needed to calm down? Yes, on the rare occasion when we deemed that the student was creating a dangerous situation for him or herself or others.”

Perkins confirmed that in extreme cases, a crisis team affiliated with the New Orleans Police Department could be called after a student had spent time in a seclusion room. But the parent is always notified prior to the crisis team’s arrival, she said.

At the meeting, Perkins circulated copies of a Recovery School District document entitled “Responses to Intervention,” which lays out procedures to be followed for handling disruptive students. The information was not in the student handbook that parents received in August 2010, nor was it in the revised discipline policy that Morris Jeff submitted to the state, The Lens found. Further, the responses to intervention do not specify that a student may be placed in a seclusion room — indeed, the document does not mention specific discipline procedures of any kind.

NOTE: The document does address some specific measures, though it never mentions that a child may be isolated.

In an August interview, Perkins said that the documents passed out at the meeting were incomplete and that the policy was still being revised. As late as Aug. 18, a week after the school year began, changes were being made to a copy of the discipline policy posted on the school’s website.

Use of seclusion rooms has created conflict among Morris Jeff faculty and board members. A former teacher, Dana French Christian, was fired after complaining to the administration about colleagues using the seclusion room, though school leaders say her dismissal was not related to her complaints.

NOTE: With Christian’s approval, a copy of the transcript of her termination hearing was made available to The Lens. As school officials contended, the proceedings centered on allegations of excessive tardiness and abrasive behavior by Christian, not her campaign against seclusion. Christian counters by saying that the timing of the school’s move against her is suspect.

Christian said the principal and other teachers used the room because they did not know how to manage high-need African-American kids.

“Anytime that you have a mixed community, as this is, you have to have intentional discussions about race and culture,” Christian said. “Naturally, the problems arise as a result when we do not have discussions. There were very specific issues surrounding discipline, and particularly the challenges of relating to African-American children.”

Christian said that her March 11 termination was because she spoke out and had nothing to do with her effectiveness as a teacher. 

NOTE: The content of the previous sentence has now been included earlier in the article.

In an Aug. 29 interview, she said she had just filed a lawsuit against Perkins and the school.

When asked about the circumstances regarding Christian’s termination, Perkins and the board’s president, Aesha Rasheed, said they do not publicly discuss personnel issues.

NOTE: It became possible for Rasheed and Perkins to discuss the termination after the transcript was released, and they did so in the Sept. 15 interview, saying that the termination was unrelated to the seclusion issue.

However, former board member Davina Allen said that the timing of Christian’s termination, the board’s handling of Christian’s termination hearing, and the way the board handled parent complaints were among reasons she decided to step down.

“After this issue arose, literally eight days later, Ms. Christian is terminated, and then the board turns their entire attention to Ms. Christian and trying to uphold the merits of her termination,” rather than address the issue of seclusion itself, said Allen. “And I just wondered, what about these kids? How about we turn this attention to them? Ms. Christian’s termination has nothing to do with her being accused of mistreating children. You have terminated this teacher for alleged misconduct around other things, but no one has been terminated around the issue.”

Allen said that the board never really investigated the seclusion issue, and that three parents withdrew children from the school as a consequence.

Rasheed said the meetings didn’t get into the seclusion issue because parents didn’t write down their concerns, the usual practice when someone wants the board to discuss a grievance.

“The purpose of having a grievance process is to have people articulate clearly what happened. And that never happened,” Rasheed said. “They never actually came to us and formally submitted a grievance.”

NOTE: Rasheed told parents at the March 17 meeting that she was available to help them navigate the grievance process.

At the March 17 board meeting, board members voted on a formal grievance process, and passed around a draft of the process for the audience’s review. Before this, no such process was in place, Rasheed said. At that meeting, when parents raised their concerns, former board president Broderick Bagert repeatedly asked them not to mention specifics in a public forum, and to submit their concerns in writing. Parents at the meeting responded that they did submit concerns.

NOTE: For a copy of the form letter received by the board, click here. To see the Morris Jeff Complaint Committee’s recommendation to the full board after looking into matters, click here.

Outside of seclusion room use, another issue at the meeting was the lack of defined discipline policies in the original draft of the school’s handbook. Allen said at the March 17 meeting that the board didn’t receive a copy of the student handbook until a day after the Feb. 22 meeting. When the board did look at the handbook, it found no written expulsion procedures, a special-education section with only two sentences, and it found that it wasn’t in line with the legal guidebook developed by New Schools for New Orleans, a non-profit that promotes school reform. The guidebook states that a school must list clear illustrations of behavioral expectations, including what punishments parents can expect children to receive during the school day, whether minor or major.

The trauma associated with the use of seclusion rooms, particularly among students with illnesses like ADHD, has been well-documented. The national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a 2003 statement that linked seclusion to suicides and serious injury, particularly among children with mental health problems. The statement said that the extreme reactions to seclusion are more likely in settings where no national guidelines exist, such as schools and hospitals.

The National Association of State Mental Health Directors’s 2007 statement is similar when describing possible risks – and in the same vein as Louisiana law, it says seclusion should never be used as discipline.

A bill regarding seclusion rooms and restraint, entitled the Keeping All Students Safe Act (H.R. 1381) passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2010 but died in the Senate. The bill has been reintroduced in the House this year. If passed, it will give money to schools that implement positive-behavior support strategies in lieu of seclusion and restraint practices. The bill will also provide states with money to collect data on the use of seclusion and restraint.

Louisiana lawmakers also responded to concerns over seclusion rooms in 2010 with the passage of Act 698, which requires BESE to develop guidelines for using seclusion and restraint for students with special needs. In June 2011, this act was revised to require BESE to create laws, instead of simple guidelines. A draft of the original guidelines is publicly available.

Among the draft’s main points:

 

  • Local education agencies should outline written procedures, so that the use of seclusion is consistent and planned in advance. These include, but are not limited to, how parents are notified and what behaviors trigger use of seclusion.
  • A student with an exceptionality should not be placed in a seclusion room except by a school employee trained in the appropriate use of seclusion rooms and the handling of students relegated to them.
  • A student shall not be secluded or restrained for more than fifteen minutes after the initiation of the seclusion except in extraordinary circumstances, where an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death still exists as determined by trained school staff.

The new law will be drafted after BESE gathers input from stakeholders, spokeswoman Ileana Ledet said.

 

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