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Reporting Methodology: Seclusion & Restraint Series

The use of seclusion and restraint in schools has come under scrutiny in recent years by states and the federal government following reports of injuries, emotional trauma and even death. According to Virginia code, seclusion is defined as “the confinement of a student alone in a room from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” Physical restraint is defined as “the use of approved physical interventions or ‘hands-on’ holds by trained staff to prevent a student from moving his body to engage in a behavior that places him or others at risk of physical harm.” The techniques are used to prevent serious injury to students and staff, when a student’s behavior escalates to harming themselves or others. But for decades, many states including Virginia lacked regulations governing the use of seclusion and restraint in schools.  

Reporting for this series began after VPM obtained state data showing nearly 30,000 total instances of seclusions and restraints at private schools serving students with disabilities for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 combined school years. VPM and WHRV collaborated to examine two of the schools reporting the highest numbers: The Faison School in Richmond, which reported 5,617 of the total 9,949 seclusions reported by all other Virginia private schools serving students with disabilities, and Plan Bee Academy in Chesapeake, which reported 7,224 of the total 18,440 restraints reported by all Virginia private schools serving students with disabilities. 

VPM’s Megan Pauly and WHRV’s Gina Gambony visited these schools to get a better understanding of the high numbers of seclusions and restraints. Reporting involved interviews with more than 30 people, including school staff, administrators, parents, advocates and state education experts. 

During our reporting about the Faison School, the reporting team made numerous attempts to get sources to speak on the record. Current and former staff of Faison we spoke to communicated they feared retaliation if their identities were disclosed. We thoroughly questioned all anonymous sources during multiple interviews to confirm their identities and ensure credibility. We also corroborated their information with multiple additional sources before including it in our series. We have multiple layers of editorial and legal oversight to review this reporting. 

VPM & WHRV also reviewed hundreds of pages of state compliance and corrective action reports received through public records requests. The reporting team initially requested copies of state compliance reports and complaints for all private day schools in Virginia serving students with disabilities over the past five years. However, the Virginia Department of Education said it would cost over $3,000 to fulfill that records request. The team then limited that request to the top several schools that reported the highest numbers of seclusion and restraint in recent years. The team also requested training materials for all of the schools from Virginia’s Department of Education, but VDOE said the materials do not exist within the department because the state does not require schools to submit these documents. 

Following Faison, the top four Virginia private schools reporting seclusion in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years included Rivermont in Roanoke (663), Rivermont in Tidewater (380), Matthews Center for Visual Learning in Manassas (342) and Gateway Private School in Stafford (328). Following Plan Bee, the top four schools reporting restraint in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years included the Faison School in Richmond (1473), the Dooley School at St. Joseph’s Villa in Richmond (1405), Alternative Paths Training Center in Alexandria (690), and the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism at St. Joseph’s Villa in Richmond (623).

VPM reached out to 80 private day schools in Virginia to learn more about their data collection process, and how they’ve been training staff to seclude and restrain students. Most schools did not respond to questions submitted via email, or phone calls. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.