A new report released Monday by Disability Rights Ohio found the Ohio Department of Education fails to enforce a rule regulating controversial disciplinary methods in schools.
"In a perfect world, yes, we should never use them. But it's not a perfect world," said Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio.
In 2013, with the urging of Disability Rights Ohio and other advocates, Ohio established a rule limiting the use of restraint and seclusion, where is a student is left alone inside a locked room, in Ohio schools to situations where there is an imminent risk of physical harm to the student or others.
The rule also requires schools to implement alternative methods, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, as a way to prevent students from becoming so upset they must be secluded or restrained.
However, the DRO report shows the state has no system to monitor schools for compliance and there is inadequate reporting and notification of incidents.
"It's few and far between that school districts are implementing this. And if they are implementing it, it tends to be in one building, not district wide," said Hildebrant.
The report also found there is "no recourse" for parents and students and "no coordinated effort among agencies" to investigate complaints.
"If a parent feels it's not being followed, there's no really way to follow up on that," said Hildebrant.
"Ending unnecessary and often dangerous uses of restraint and seclusion in Ohio's schools requires more than putting a policy in place," said Michael Kirkman, Executive Director of Disability Rights Ohio.
"The lack of leadership, resources, and robust enforcement is placing too many of Ohio's children and those who teach them at risk of serious harm and continued trauma," he said.
Ohio Schools Disregard Rules
An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation found schools openly disregard the new rule limiting seclusion and restraint.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigators reviewed the Ohio Department of Education’s database of reported incidents, we found schools reported 20,945 incidents during the 2014-2015 school year.
More than 400 students involved in those incidents were injured.
We also found the number of reported incidents was 52 percent higher than during the 2013-2014 school year when the state rule limiting their use first took effect.
“We see cases where kids have been restrained or secluded for extended periods of time, particularly kids who have significant behaviors related to their disabilities and the school districts are having a difficult time responding to those behaviors in an appropriate way,” said Hildebrant
NewsChannel 5 Investigators also found schools disregard the use of alternative methods to discipline students.
When schools report incidents, they are asked if they implemented Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.
During a review of the state’s database, we found only eight percent of incidents reported during the 2014-15 school year resulted in the creation of a “Positive Behavior Intervention” plan. The data showed only 37 percent of the incidents resulted in the review of an existing plan.
In a little more than half of reported incidents, school districts reported “no further action” was taken.
“From my experience, the cases I see coming through our office, it's few and far between that school districts are implementing this and if they are implementing it, it tends to be in one building and not district wide,” said Hildebrant.
When positive behavior supports are implemented, the effects can be dramatic on a student’s education and behavior.
For example, Jordyn Zimmerman, 20, was routinely restrained for several years inside the classrooms at schools she attended, including Hudson City Schools.
She said it would sometimes happen as many as five times a day.
“I think that I may have gotten a concussion when I was being restrained at Hudson High School one day. My head got hit against the chalkboard ledge and I ended up in the hospital,” she said.
“I don't know if abused was the right word. But I certainly wasn't treated right,” she said. “I don't know if they would have treated a general education student like that."
Zimmerman has nonverbal autism and struggled to share her thoughts and feelings until she figured out how a technological device could do the talking for her.
“I was having a difficult time in school. And I wasn't able to communicate much. When I was home after an incident, I needed a way to express what had occurred so I started using my iPad,” she said.
She now carries her iPad with her everywhere. After she types the words, she uses a voice application which speaks the words she cannot communicate.
Like many students with autism, Zimmerman often struggles to deal with the world around her.
“When I get overstimulated or upset, I have a hard time,” she said.
“I have internal fights with my body on a daily basis. Sometimes I bite my fingers, bang my head against the walls, or run out of the building. I can also be aggressive when I am extremely upset,” she said.
However, she has not been restrained even once this school year. She is now a senior at Mentor High School where she has a collaborative team devoted to implementing behavior supports to help her succeed.
“Every morning I go on a run with one of the principals. This helps regulate my body and helps with sensory overstimulation. The rhythm and repetitiveness of running has really helped me. So that's one strategy that we use,” she said.
“There are some other things too. If I need to talk to someone, people are available. My teachers will give me hand squeezes or head squeezes anytime. If I am having a bad day, sometimes I just sit in a quiet area,” she said.
The strategies have also helped her succeed academically. She just took her ACTs and has applied to several colleges.
“I want to be a special education teacher so I can assist students who are so smart internally, but need some extra help," she said.