Thursday, July 25, 2024

Seclusion rooms incorporated into NHCS’ new school designs

A photo of a seclusion room from a 2020 New Hanover County Schools presentation on the Greenblatt Act, which guides how public schools can use seclusion and restraint.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It should take about 12 months for a school district to move away from the use of restraint and seclusion, according to child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene. But, through anecdotal evidence, he believes by verbally committing to end the practice, a school system can cut back the use significantly, as much as 50%.

“Just by saying, we don’t want to do that anymore,” Greene said. “But of course, by saying we don’t want to do that anymore, they’re also saying: We no longer believe this is necessary. We no longer believe this is therapeutic. We no longer believe that restraint and seclusion increases safety.”

New Hanover County Schools leadership has not said as much. It has, though, said it is exploring less restrictive practices, as pressure from opponents to seclusion mounts.

It’s a mixed message, considering the school system is incorporating seclusion rooms into the schematic designs for RiverLights Elementary and a replacement building for Pine Valley Elementary. Both projects are about three-and-a-half years away from opening, dependent upon funding.

Compared to other school districts, New Hanover County has a high number of seclusion instances. The closet-sized spaces, often lined with thick blue padding, are used to isolate students when their behavior “poses a threat of imminent physical harm to self or others.”

RELATED: Most New Hanover K-8 schools use seclusion rooms, top U.S. education officials have concerns about their use

In the first semester of this school year, NHCS reported secluding students 171 times. That includes 69 incidents at Forest Hills Global Elementary; 26 at Murrayville Elementary; 44 at Lake Forest Academy; nine at Myrtle Grove Middle; six at Snipes Academy; six at Masonboro Elementary; four at Winter Park Elementary; two at Alderman Elementary and two at Holly Tree Elementary.

Eaton Elementary, Trask Middle and Blair Elementary each had one instance.

Across 45 schools, NHCS has 25 seclusion rooms. It also has a number of  “calming spaces,” which may simply be a space with a bean bag where a student can relax, a district spokesperson explained. Some campuses don’t have seclusion rooms at all; others have converted the spaces into storage.

“This is very concerning what is going on with our district, as far as restraint and seclusion,” board member Judy Justice said in a January meeting. “I’ve worked in other districts. I’ve never — 20 rooms in different schools? I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ll be honest with you.”

In a presentation last month, NHCS assistant superintendent of support services Julie Varnam said efforts are underway in NHCS to research less restrictive solutions. Leadership is in talks with internal behavior specialists and the Department of Public Instruction to seek out those practices, but a spokesperson also indicated it does not intend to strip the tool from staff if it’s necessary without a replacement.

“New Hanover County Schools will continuously seek and adopt the absolute best practices and tools that support our students, including those with special needs,” Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust wrote to Port City Daily. “We must do so thoughtfully, especially regarding seclusion, taking into consideration the students, staff, and families most impacted by changes to existing policies and Individualized Education Programs.”

The seclusion rooms planned for RiverLights and the new Pine Valley building would be within special education classrooms on the first floor. According to a list compiled by NHCS, Pine Valley Elementary currently has a space it operates as a “calming room,” not a seclusion room.

The rooms are incorporated into the designs in line with “New Hanover County Schools Elementary Educational Specifications,” the document the school board adopted in 2009 for constructing elementary schools. The guidance requires at least one, 50-square-foot seclusion space in a special education room, intended as “a place where students can gain control and then re-enter the regular classroom activities.”

“If you build it, you will use it,” said Guy Stephens.

Stephens is the founder of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, which works with advocates across the country, including Sandy Eyles, an outspoken NHCS parent. Based on his three-plus years of researching these practices, he suggests the reason some districts report higher rates of seclusion than others is a matter of culture and training.

“This is what they use as their intervention when — air quotes — ‘these kids are having a difficult time,’” Stephens said. “It becomes baked into how they respond.”

In NHCS, all staff members are trained in seclusion, restraint and verbal de-escalation each year, and employees involved in the practices are instructed in the full modules of the Crisis Prevention Institute.

Any school personnel is legally entitled to seclude or restrain a student under the permitted circumstances, but it is the expectation in NHCS that only individuals certified do so, explained Varnam during a January presentation. The practices are most commonly used on students with disabilities and behavior accommodation plans. During her overview with the school board, Varnam indicated it would be unusual to see it occur in the general school setting.

The latest data from the Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Education shows NHCS secluded students with disabilities more than 460 times in 2017, and nine on students without disabilities. Some, like Stephens, see this as a failure on the district’s part to meet children’s needs as well as a human rights issue.

Per North Carolina law, the seclusion of a student can never be used as a form of discipline. It’s only permitted in several circumstances: when there’s a weapon involved, to maintain order, to break up a fight, for self-defense, to prevent “substantial” destruction of property, or “when a student’s behavior poses a threat of imminent physical harm to self or others.”

Varnam said NHCS will “draw it in much tighter,” encouraging staff to only seclude as a last resort to prevent harm.

“If a child were to continuously misbehave, speak out of turn, throw a pencil, cause a disruption, and that child were restrained and secluded, would that be an appropriate use of our rooms?” board member Nelson Beaulieu asked during the January presentation.

“I would not call that an appropriate use,” Varnam said.

North Carolina statute legally requires the district to inform a parent or guardian when a student is secluded, within no later than 30 days. However, the NHCS training is to do so within 24 hours.

When asked by Justice about NHCS’s numbers in comparison to other districts, Varnam questioned the accuracy of their reporting.

Echoing those sentiments, Dr. Greene told Port City Daily it’s probably “a little dicey” to liken one school system to another or determine whether NHCS is, in fact, better or worse. He explained it’s unclear if other districts are underreporting and to what extent.

“Lots of school systems are trying to figure out how they got in this fix in the first place, where they’re restraining and secluding more than even they want to be,” Greene said. “No one wants to restrain or seclude a kid. Somehow it happens anyways. So a lot of school systems are sort of grappling with number one: How did we get to this point? Even more importantly, how do we stop doing this to kids?”

Other school districts have phased out seclusion following a push by advocates, parents or in some cases, new leadership. Other times school systems have shut down rooms as the result of legal settlements.

In Frederick, Maryland, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigated the school system for discriminating against students with disabilities through the use of seclusion and restraint. It uncovered instances where the practice was excessive. The Frederick County Public Schools agreed to prohibit the use moving forward and pursue other behavioral interventions.

In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools was sued over alleged unlawful restraint and seclusion practices and, as a result, banned seclusion on all campuses.

NHCS has assured the board and public it is in compliance.

“Just to kind of be clear, and as we wrap up this conversation, are we in compliance with federal state, NCSBA and local policy?” board chair Stephanie Kraybill asked at the end of the January presentation.

“Yes, we are in compliance,” Varnam said. “We are not out of compliance with any effort. In fact, we are diligently reporting.”

Stephens said he often sees districts emphasize being within the law when defending seclusion and restraint.

“Regardless of whether you say you’re in compliance, you should be doing them less,” Stephens said. “I mean, that should be a goal. These are dangerous interventions.”

Dr. Greene said he has engaged in discussions with NHCS and believes its administration is interested in changing its ways. Greene is the originator of the model Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS), which he said is used to reduce restraint and seclusion. He provides free resources to the model through his organization, Lives in the Balance.

CPS is different from CPI, which is what NHCS uses. Greene’s model focuses on avoiding the need for de-escalation altogether, preventing any problematic behavior before it happens. The key, he explained, is identifying the expectations the kids aren’t reaching. Take a math problem, for example.

“The kid has probably been having difficulty completing the division problems on the worksheet in math for six months. This is not a surprise,” he said. “In fact, this is very predictable, but we keep putting that expectation on the kid, even though we know the kid can’t meet it. Each time we put the expectation on the kid, they do something: They tip over the desk. They scream a profanity. They run out of the classroom. We’ve now arrived at behavior.”

He said those behaviors only prove what they already knew to be true: The kid wasn’t meeting his or her expectation. Once they exhibit that behavior, a staff member has to de-escalate the situation — a point at which Greene says it’s “too late.”

Greene’s philosophy is that it’s better to address the issue with the math problem early: Find out from the child why it’s difficult to meet the expectation, then help the child understand why that expectation exists. Lastly, work with the child on the solution.

“The timing’s right. It’s being proactive. We’re including the kid. We’re being collaborative,” he said. “All that other stuff — restraint, seclusion, de-escalation — that’s way downstream, and none of them are going to help this kid do any better on the division problems in math.”

Below is a list of NHCS’ seclusion rooms and their uses.

“Seclusion room
Alderman Elementary – 1
Ashley High – 1
Bradley Creek Elementary – 1
Forest Hills Global Elementary – 1
Rachel Freeman School of Engineering – 1
International School at Gregory – 2
Holly Tree Elementary – 1
J.C. Roe Center – 1
Lake Forest Academy – 3
Laney High – 1
Murray Middle School 1 1
Murrayville Elementary – 1
Myrtle Grove Middle – 1
New Hanover High – 1
Noble Middle – 1
Porters Neck Elementary – 2
Snipes Academy – 1
Trask Middle – 1
Williston Middle – 2
Winter Park Elementary – 1
Wrightsboro Elementary – 2

“Calming space
Anderson Elementary – 1
Ashley High – 3
Bellamy Elementary – 1
Blair Elementary – 1
Carolina Beach Elementary – 1
College Park Elementary – 2
Eaton Elementary – 1 
Holly Shelter Middle – 1
Ogden Elementary – 1
Pine Valley Elementary – 1
Roland-Grise Middle – 1 
Sunset Park Elementary- 1

Castle Hayne Elementary – 3
Forest Hill Global Elementary – 1
Johnson Pre-K Cente – 1
Mary C. Williams Elementary – 1

Hoggard High – 1
Williston Middle – 1

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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