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Richmond Private School Reported the Highest Number of Seclusions; Staff Say They’re Not Sure When to Record Them

illustration of child holding their knees
Illustration: Crixell Matthews

Editors' Note: VPM spent six months reviewing public records and conducting interviews with more than a dozen people with direct experience working in Faison classrooms. Those sources would only talk to VPM on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation. Some who were originally willing to use their names in the story changed their minds prior to publication. This followed repeated attempts from Faison leadership to obtain the names of people who talked to VPM.

According to state data, Virginia private schools serving students with disabilities reported a total of about 10,000 student seclusions across two recent school years. Regulations for the use of seclusion and restraint in these schools took effect in 2015, while regulations for the use of the practices in public schools haven’t been formally approved yet.

The state’s private school regulations define seclusion as “confinement of a student alone in a room from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” The regulations also specify that seclusion should only be used in an emergency to prevent a student from seriously harming himself or others and “after less intrusive interventions have been attempted and failed to manage that particular behavior and there is a substantial explanation for why other interventions were deemed inadequate or inappropriate.” They also state that seclusion shouldn’t be used for disciplinary reasons, punishment, retaliation or for “staff’s convenience.”

One school reported over half of the approximately 10,000 seclusions for all Virginia private day schools combined for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. The Faison Center reported a total of 5,617 seclusions to the state over that time period. The private, nonprofit school is located in Richmond’s West End and serves about 200 students with disabilities, many on the autism spectrum. The school first opened in 1999 with a handful of students but has steadily expanded since then.

Byron Wine, Faison’s chief operating officer, says the school’s high number of reported seclusions is largely a factor of the population of students they serve. Faison says many of the students referred to them “have been relegated to homebound services, kicked out of other schools, and who are often in crisis when they come through our doors for the first time.”

According to Faison, about 90 percent of their students have attempted to hurt others in the past. The school says this “ranges from mild forms of hitting or pinching to head-directed punches, kicking people in the knees, dragging someone to the floor, biting and tearing skin, and throwing large heavy objects at others.” Additionally, the school says more than half have tried harming themselves, many have attempted to run out of the school building, and the majority of students lack “well-developed communication skills.”

Faison’s Director of Education Eli Newcomb told VPM that the majority of the school’s seclusions and restraints involve only a small number of students. He said about 10 percent of Faison’s student body, or about 19 students, account for about 80 percent of all protective procedures used.

Seclusion In The Classroom

At Faison, most classrooms have two adjacent seclusion rooms. Faison calls seclusions “safety separations,” and therefore calls these rooms “safety separation” rooms. There are two kinds of rooms: one is small and empty, with blue padded walls, and an approximately 1-by-1 foot observation window in the door which adults can use to see into the room, but is too high for smaller children to see out of. The other room is also small and empty, but not padded and with lighter colored walls.

Wine said the only way to keep the door to the safety separation rooms shut is to hold down a lever outside the door.

“There’s no locking mechanism on the door,” Wine said. “So it’s designed so you cannot walk away and leave somebody in this room that’s locked. I have to watch.”

In an interview arranged by Faison, parent Sarah Ratner said that in addition to autism, her 18-year-old son Ben has autoimmune encephalitis. Ratner says Ben sometimes engages in self-harming behavior.

“When he's doing that, I absolutely want any measure necessary taken to prevent him from hurting himself,” Ratner said. “There are situations where I know people think they could do better, but they couldn't. It's a crisis that happens.”

Ratner said that when her son’s immune system is working well, he’s happy and doesn’t need protective procedures like seclusion and restraint.

“I don’t know what I would do without this school [Faison],” Ratner said. “We had to fight for him to get admitted to this school after being in a public school situation where I didn't get any information at all.”

Ratner said that she has always been notified immediately after her son has to be secluded or restrained. Another parent, Holly Aldridge, said her 17-year-old son Kyle trusts the staff at Faison.

“My son was in public school in elementary school and he ran out of the building multiple times. They couldn't find him once. He was a runner,” Aldridge said. “I mean you, what are you going to do? Let them get hit by a car? I mean, we don't like it [seclusion or restraint], but sometimes it's necessary.”

VPM requested all state compliance reports and complaints related to Faison as well as several other Virginia private day schools over the past five years. There was only one Faison parent complaint during that time period. Following the 2015 complaint, a culminating investigation from the Virginia Department of Education found the school in noncompliance "regarding its obligation to notify parents when their child has been subjected to a restraint and of any injuries obtained during the restraint." The report deemed Faison staff untimely in completing the incident report, saying “we find it troubling that it took Faison staff ten calendar days to prepare the incident report,” and that “it would be a reasonable expectation that incident reports would be completed almost immediately following an incident to ensure accurate and full recollection of the events which occurred prior to, during, and after the restraint.”

In an email response, Faison said that parents were notified the day of the incident, and the complaint “merely addressed an administrative issue about whether Faison’s follow-up written notice should have been provided sooner and whether it should have included additional information.”

When Are Seclusions Documented?

The 2015 state regulations require individual schools to document each instance of seclusion and restraint and provide a detailed, written report to the student’s parents within two business days of the event. However, they do not require Virginia’s Department of Education to collect or analyze these incident reports.

Some Faison staff say they aren’t sure about when they should be using or reporting seclusions in the first place. VPM interviewed over a dozen people with experience working in Faison classrooms during this investigation. All sources would only talk to VPM on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation. Some who were originally willing to use their names in the story changed their minds prior to publication. This followed repeated attempts from Faison leadership to obtain the names of people who talked to VPM.

The majority of Faison staff members who spoke to VPM said that they’re sometimes instructed not to report a seclusion if the door to the seclusion room isn’t completely closed but is just cracked slightly, or if a foot or a desk is wedged in the door. Several former and current staff said that lack of training and clear policy about the use of seclusion rooms has led to underreporting and overuse of the practice. 

In a 142-page Faison trainee packet obtained by VPM, part of an introductory training for new staff, only a few presentation slides detail seclusion. The material indicates that the rooms should only be used when students are “engaging in behavior that presents an immediate threat of danger to himself, or others.” It also states that a seclusion should only last until the risky behavior is over, and that one seclusion shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes.

At that point, the training material indicates, staff should open the door and attempt to release the student. If the problem behavior remains dangerous, another seclusion can be implemented, the material states.

Byron Wine, who created training materials for Faison, says if that happens, staff should report a second seclusion. And, he says, staff should be reporting seclusions if the door is open, but students are blocked from leaving.

“It doesn’t matter if the door was open this much, an inch or two, and you couldn’t leave the room, it would be a safety separation,” Wine said.

But, Wine says, if a student goes into a seclusion room voluntarily, that shouldn’t be reported as a seclusion. According to Faison, a student who requests to use the seclusion room to calm down “is a good thing, since they are aware of their need to de-escalate. We encourage such requests.”

Multiple sources told VPM that sometimes, the seclusion rooms serve as de facto classrooms, where they say students have spent hours doing work. Sources told VPM they didn’t report these situations as seclusions.

Faison said that a small number of students do experience such severe and dangerous behavior that their instruction “may occur in a private room.” According to the school, these situations are not counted as seclusions because students “are with staff and not prevented from leaving.”

Faison Education Director Eli Newcomb said under-reporting of seclusions “would be not only practically difficult but just philosophically out of balance with how we do things.”

Newcomb said the school's high numbers of seclusion and restraint indicate that Faison is placing a premium on data collection and reporting of student progress.

“Everybody I suppose makes mistakes occasionally,” Newcomb said. “But one thing that we feel like helps ensure we're doing the right thing is that we have a lot of eyes in our classrooms. ”

Multiple Faison staff members said they also felt uncomfortable because they said they were encouraged to get kids right back to work immediately following a seclusion or restraint, an experience that can be physically and emotionally intense for both students and staff. Multiple staff also said there were no mental health counselors at Faison to help staff or students process these events.

State regulations for private schools require schools to give “parents and students, as appropriate, the opportunity to discuss the matter with school staff,” following an instance of seclusion or restraint, but the regulations don’t mention anything about a required debriefing period immediately following the events, or that counselors should be involved.

Colleen Miller, executive director for the Disability Law Center of Virginia, said she believes staff at all schools that use seclusion and restraint should be debriefing following each instance of seclusion or restraint, even if it’s not required by the regulations.

Miller is of the opinion that restrictive procedures like restraint and seclusion are not treatment. Other advocates in Virginia and across the nation who have joined the debate have expressed similar views.

“Any time a child is subjected to seclusion and restraint, the team needs to go back and figure out where the plan failed,” Miller said. “What did we do wrong? What did we not do soon enough? What did we not see coming that caused us to have to resort to something that is not treatment?”

Faison Staff Turnover ‘Not Unique At All’

Faison employs about 150 teaching assistants, whose minimum qualification is a high school diploma. Starting salary is about $24,000. About two-thirds of Faison TAs have bachelor’s degrees, while about a third have a high school diploma. More than a third have worked there for a year or less. Studies show turnover is much higher in special education than other areas of education.

Multiple Faison staff who spoke to VPM cited the turnover rate as a problem. The longer staff stay, they say, the easier it is to get to know students’ triggers better, and therefore help better de-escalate some situations.

“In terms of turnover, we're not unique at all,” said Newcomb. “Specialized education is definitely a field that struggles with turnover on the whole and we're no stranger to that, especially at our entry level staff level.”

In February 2018, Faison had 11 licensed teachers, 11 provisionally licensed teachers and one unlicensed substitute, according to a state compliance report. A 2015 state compliance report said it was “evident that the school was identifying staff who did not hold teaching licenses as teachers” and “staff who are finishing courses and are in the processes of applying for a provisional license are not ‘teachers.’”

In a statement to VPM, Faison said they were “incorrectly using the term ‘teacher intern’ as opposed to ‘substitute teacher.’”

Faison also wrote that “at no point in time were the qualifications of those in the classroom at issue. It was only a matter of using the correct terminology." The school also says they currently have 26 total classroom teachers.

Faison wasn’t the only private day school cited for similar issues over the last few years. A 2018 state report on the Grafton School in Richmond found that four instructional assistants were filling a teaching position, and six staff in teaching positions did not have licenses. In an email response to VPM, Grafton wrote they are “only putting qualified individuals in the role of teacher or lead in any of its classrooms.”

A 2018 state report on the Rivermont School in Hampton found that staff members there had been serving in the role of substitute teacher for more than 90 days. A 2015 state compliance report on the Virginia Institute of Autism in Charlottesville stated that “school leaders are encouraged to clearly define the difference between Teachers and Instructors.” Neither of these schools responded to multiple requests for comment from VPM.

A Work In Progress

It’s been more than four years since the 2015 updated state regulations on seclusion and restraint for private schools serving students with disabilities in Virginia went into effect, but Virginia’s Department of Education (VDOE) just recently started to collect data on the use of these procedures from schools. A public records request from Virginia parent Sean Campbell prompted the department to call all schools to get this data earlier this year. VDOE says they now have data, both the total number of seclusions and restraints for each school and at the individual student level, for the last four school years.

While some states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have started to release annual data and reports on the use of seclusions and restraints in schools, Virginia does not plan to publish data on the practices. Virginia’s Department of Education says that while they are collecting individualized, per student data on seclusion and restraint, they don’t plan to release it to the public. It’s unclear how the state plans to use the data, if at all, going forward. State law doesn’t require the department to analyze the data. A VPM request for per student data on the use of seclusion and restraint in recent school years was denied, because VDOE claimed it was exempt from FOIA law, and possibly subject to state and federal student privacy laws.

VPM also submitted a public records request for the 2015-2016 and 2018-2019 total figures of seclusions and restraints for each school. VDOE wanted to charge over $1,000 for staff to compile these numbers. VPM will continue to seek this data.

“While numbers reported from a school are numbers reported from a school, to us the most important thing is that for each individual kid we’re looking at: are these procedures being used less and less over time,” said Newcomb, Faison’s education director.

Newcomb says they’ve created an internal database to start tracking whether or not seclusions or restraints for each student are decreasing over time. Faison did not respond to a VPM request to see anonymized per-student data over the past two academic school years.

Colleen Miller, executive director with the Disability Law Center of Virginia, says she hopes Virginia’s Department of Education does something significant with the information that’s reported to them. She thinks VDOE can be doing more to monitor compliance with the regulations, too.

“It does not have to be an onsite visit. I'm not actually sure how much you're going to learn from an onsite visit, especially if it's announced,” Miller said. “Heightened reporting requirements would certainly help a lot. I think the department could offer an anonymous tip line or anonymous hotline, where any staff or any parent who is concerned about something that's happening in a private school or public school could report that complaint in a way that it could be subject to investigation.”

The 2015 regulations do require schools to keep track of their justification for the use of physical restraint or seclusion, as well as descriptions of “less restrictive interventions” that were unsuccessfully attempted prior to using physical restraint or seclusion. Additionally, the regulations state that repeated use of seclusion or restraint on an individual child “shall trigger a review and, if appropriate, a revision of behavioral strategies currently in place to address dangerous behavior. If positive behavioral strategies are not in place, staff shall develop them.” However, the regulations don’t require schools to report this information to the state.

Eli Newcomb points out that the state data lacks another important detail: how long seclusions and restraints last. While the state regulations require schools to record the duration for restraints and seclusions, they don’t require schools to report that information annually to VDOE. Newcomb says that means it’s hard to compare the numbers objectively across schools.

For example, one school could count a seclusion as lasting only five seconds, while another school could count one as lasting 20 minutes. Joshua Lutz, education director for Dominion Youth Services, runs two Dominion Academy schools in Virginia. Lutz said they don’t use seclusion at all, but says the average restraint in his schools lasts 30 seconds.

VPM reached out to over 80 private day schools in Virginia to learn more about their data collection and how they’ve been training staff to report seclusion and restraint. Most schools did not respond to questions or requests for interviews.

Following Faison, the top four schools that reported data to the Virginia Department of Education for seclusion in the combined 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).

Do you have experience at a school that uses seclusion and/or restraint and want to share your story? Get in touch with us at [email protected].

In the next part of our series, WHRV’s Gina Gambony looks at the private day school that reported the highest number of restraints in recent school years, and why the data doesn’t tell the whole story.

Correction: The original infographic "Seclusions And Restraints Reported By Private Day Schools Serving Students With Disabilities To VDOE" included incorrect data provided by VDOE listing Elk Hill Harambee school as reporting 98 seclusions for the 2016-2017 school year. Following publication of this article, the school contacted VPM because they said they do not use seclusion. After VPM contacted VDOE, a spokesperson said the figure was a typo. VPM has corrected the infographic. 

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.
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