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Serious flaws in OH school discipline data

Posted: 11:42 PM, Sep 22, 2015
Updated: 2015-09-23 03:42:33Z

An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered serious flaws in the system designed to track how often Ohio students are subjected to controversial forms of disciplines in their classrooms.

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Ohio schools are only allowed to physically restrain students or place them in locked seclusion rooms when there is “an immediate risk of physical harm” to the student or others.

Disability Rights Ohio Executive Director Michael Kirkman said the methods are most often used on children with disabilities and can leave those students emotionally traumatized and physically injured.

The Ohio Department of Education is required to collect data about every incident of seclusion and restrain in schools to identify potential problems and misuse of the methods.

However, when NewsChannel 5 Investigators reviewed Ohio’s database, we found the state failed to gather information from 10 percent of public school districts or follow up with hundreds of districts that submitted incomplete data for the 2013-2014 school year.

For example, Mentor Public Schools responded, “I don’t know” to questions about whether school officials reassess a student’s behavior plan after a student is restrained.

Kirkman said he is disappointed with state education official's efforts.  

“It's hard to tell from the data anything that's really meaningful,” he said.

But Kirkman said one thing is clear.

“Too many students are being secluded and restrained,” he said.

Ohio schools reported close to 14,000 incidents of seclusion and restraint during the 2013-2014 school year.

“It should never happen,” Kirkman said.

Tammy Greene will never forget watching the surveillance video of her then 13-year-old son, Sean, being restrained by two staff members after a teacher grabbed him by the throat and knocked him to the ground in a classroom at Education Alternatives in Willoughby Hills last year.

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“It absolutely destroyed me,” she said. “I should never have had to see that happen to him ever. It terrifies me to this day to have to send him to school."

Greene said Sean became withdrawn after the incident. He has autism and suffers from anxiety and other behavioral disorders. 

He struggles to process what happened to him.

“Sean's just not the same. He never will be; ever,” Greene said.

Greene has filed a lawsuit against Education Alternatives. The nonprofit organization’s C.E.O, Gerald Swartz, declined to comment on NewsChannel 5’s story because of the pending litigation, but did tell us the teacher involved in the incident is no longer an employee.

For several weeks, NewsChannel 5 Investigators requested answers about the reporting problems from state education officials.

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After the department failed to answer our questions, we went to Columbus to talk with Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross during a state school board meeting.

When we attempted to speak with him, Michael Sponhour, Executive Director of Communications and Outreach for the Ohio Department of Education, repeatedly pushed Investigator Sarah Buduson and said, “We’re not doing this now.”

State officials then offered us an interview with Dr. Susan Zake, the executive director of the Office for Exceptional Children.

She spearheaded the effort to collect the schools' seclusion and restraint data.

“Do I know whether or not things were underreported? I don't know that for a fact. Could they have been? Sure. Could they have been over-reported in some places and underreported in others? Possibly,” she said.

When we asked how she would grade the state’s efforts, Zake said, “I would probably say we're running at about a 'C' in the collection of this data right now, to be honest.”

Zake said the state is working to do a better job collecting information about incidents of seclusion and restraint.

She said districts will fill out a spreadsheet this year, instead of an online survey. She also said districts will receive information clearly defining seclusion and restraint.

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