For the first time, Ohio has a policy that limits a school’s use of seclusion and restraint for difficult students. Schools must now adopt positive behavior interventions and support.

Seclusion and restraint can only be used when there is an immediate risk of physical harm to the student or others, states the policy. In addition, schools are now required to document and report when seclusion or restraint is used.

Prohibited under all circumstances are the practices of prone restraint and seclusion of students in a locked room.

The move came after an investigation (through a collaboration between the Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio) revealed a number of schools around the state misused seclusion rooms by regularly isolating children, many of whom had disabilities, into separate rooms or closets when they misbehaved. Examples of the misbehavior included times when students refused to do work or talked back to the teacher.

“It’s very troubling that it’s taken this long, but we’re finally getting there,” said Valorie Dombroskas, an advocate for the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities.

Dombroskas participated on the state-level workgroup that crafted the new policy.

The OCECD serves families throughout the state. Dombroskas covers nine counties in the southeast: Athens, Vinton, Hocking, Washington, Ross, Pike, Fairfield, Perry and Morgan. She is the person parents call if they suspect something is wrong in school.

While she has no record of any seclusion cases in Athens County, she stressed “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” Representatives of each of the school districts in the county reported to The Messenger that they do no use seclusion rooms.

Beacon School, which is governed by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, already has a strict policy regarding seclusion and restraint. The school serves children with developmental disabilities and has in the past separated a student from his or her class. It was a practice used to help a student calm down and prevent disruption, explained Supt. Eric Young. A student is never left alone, and according to the new state policy, that policy is acceptable.

The policy defines seclusion as a student involuntary left alone in a room, enclosure or space and is prevented from leaving by physical restraint or by a closed door or other physical barrier.

“If restraint is necessary, it must be included in a formalized Behavior Support Plan,” Young said via email. “We have only two Beacon School students who have a formalized Behavior Support Plan that authorizes a brief physical escort hold and a brief physical restraint. Restraint is a last resort and is used only to assure health and safety and not as a punishment.”

He went on to say a Human Rights Committee reviews and approves/disapproves these plans. Any time a restraint is used, it is documented.

Dombroskas does have reported incidents of seclusion in Ross and Perry County schools. In a recent case, a student was regularly kept in what used to be a janitor’s closet.

“When you get to a point of seclusion or restraint on a regular basis, your education plan is a failure,” she said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

She declined to name the school district, adding the school no longer uses the room in that capacity and the administrator who implemented the practice is no longer employed with the district.

“To lock them in a room is not an effective method,” said Sue Tobin, chief legal counsel for Disability Rights Ohio. “In fact, it’s counterproductive. You just wish they’d recognize these kids’ behaviors are a result of their disability and to treat them as human beings. The response should be to teach them, not punish them. That’s the the job of educators.”

Dombrosaks and Tobin said the focus of the new policy is rightly put on creating adequate prevention plans. Many times, teachers lack the training to effectively use techniques like verbal de-escalation to defuse potentially violent behavior.

Bill Sayer, head teacher with the Athens Alternative School, which serves students with learning disabilities, said verbal de-escalation is a tactic often used with his students.

Although Dombroskas would rather see seclusion banned, she does say the policy is a “huge step in the right direction.”

“The important piece is the training piece,” she said. “People need resources. They need to know what to do. They need the support to get that training in their school district. That’s going to be the challenge in our area. Our schools are trying to do a heck of a lot with very little.”

asmedley@athensmessenger.com; Twitter @ariansmessenger

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