An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered Ohio schools failing to follow rules meant to protect the state’s most vulnerable students.
We found thousands of students, many of whom are disabled, are often subjected to controversial forms of disciplines inside their classrooms.
According to an Ohio rule, schools should only physically restrain students or place them in locked seclusion rooms when there is “an immediate risk of physical harm” to the student or others.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigators reviewed the Ohio Department of Education’s database of reported incidents of seclusion and restraint, we found schools reported 20,945 incidents during the 2014-2015 school year.
414 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 the use of seclusion and restraint first took effect.
“In a perfect world, yes, we should never use them. But it's not a perfect world,” said Kristin Hildebrant, a senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio, which has fought for more than two decades to stop schools from using seclusion and restraint.
“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,” she said.
Ohio Schools Disregard Rules
NewsChannel 5 Investigators also found schools openly disregard other parts of the 2013 state rule aimed at limiting the use of the controversial methods.
After each incident, schools are asked if they implemented “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.” These are methods and practices to help students avoid becoming so upset they need to be secluded and restrained.
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,” she said.
Zimmerman has nonverbal autism and was unable to speak 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 aced her ACTs and 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 showing their true potential. I want to change the education system,” she said.
We called the Hudson City School District after hearing Jordyn’s story. A spokesperson sent us the following statement:
“The Hudson City School District cares very deeply about the welfare, safety and security of all students. A high priority is placed on staff training that emphasizes the prevention of student behavior problems through the use of non-aversive techniques as recommended by the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), Non-violent Crisis Intervention. CPI training focuses on de-escalation and physical intervention that helps keep students and staff safe. The district’s policy, expectations and practices are that physical restraint is only used as a last resort if students are hurting themselves or others, or presenting a significant risk of harm to self or others.”
Ohio Department of Education Responds
NewsChannel 5 Investigators first uncovered issues with seclusion and restraint in Ohio schools last fall.
We found serious flaws in the system tracking incidents resulted in massive underreporting.
At the time, Susan Zake, the director of the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Exceptional Children, told us she was working to help schools understand the rules.
Zake is in charge of gathering and monitoring information about seclusion and restraint incidents in Ohio schools.
“There's work to be done on school districts and the efforts they're making, on behalf of families, on behalf of children,” she said.
Zake declined our requests to be interviewed for this story.
However, Ohio Department of Education spokesperson Kim Norris sent us the following statement:
“We have provided a model prevention and reporting policy for schools to adopt. Prevention is key. If we see an unusual number of complaints, we would contact the district to ensure their data is correct, and make sure they are aware of the resources available to help them implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. We will be doing an analysis of the data – looking for trends, and areas for technical assistance for districts, schools, parents and the community on how to prevent the use of restraint or seclusion in the first place. We continue to reach out to districts to help them understand their reporting requirement and the resources available to them reduce the use of restraint and seclusion.”