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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Wilmington charter school suspends use of seclusion room after illegal usage

In response to the parents' grievance against Cape Fear Center for Inquiry, pictured, the school said that its seclusion room did not meet minimum state standards. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
In response to the parents’ grievance against Cape Fear Center for Inquiry, pictured, the school said its seclusion room did not meet minimum state standards. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — The Cape Fear Center for Inquiry suspended use of its seclusion room last fall after the family of a seven-year-old student filed a grievance against the public charter school. The school admitted that the room — and its policies for the room — did not meet minimum state standards.

Although the K-8 school was first designed to include a seclusion room, according to the school’s response to the grievance, the administration was “unable to find any record or document of the specific approval for use of that room as a seclusion room.” 

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

While the school’s grievance committee agreed to make changes to its policy, the parents remain concerned — both that they were never informed of how the seclusion room would be used, and that Cape Fear Center for Inquiry (CFCI) was ultimately subject to little accountability from the state, despite being publicly funded.

Failure to meet state standards

The administration’s responses conceded to several violations of state requirements outlined by the Greenblatt Act: inaccurate reporting of two incidents of seclusion, a failure to include its seclusion protocols in the yearly handbook until two days before the grievance was filed, and a failure to meet the state’s minimum design requirements. 

Those unmet requirements included heavily cushioned carpeted flooring (the floor is tiled) and a dimension of at least six feet by six feet (the room is five feet by five feet). The administration also said it was “unsure” if the interior had the appropriate rating to prevent toxic fumes if burned.

Additionally, it is unclear whether the school ever created a board-approved policy concerning its seclusion room. The mother who filed the complaint, Sandy Eyles, said the school took six days to provide its seclusion protocols when requested. 

In its responses to the grievance, the administration said its policy isn’t specific to seclusion, but rather to its Crisis Management Plan.

“Unfortunately, that policy did not specifically show those protocols in the details that Mrs. Eyles requests,” the administration said in its response.  

The policy description also states that an actual crisis management plan had not yet been developed.

“CFCI will have a detailed Crisis Management Plan that … will be kept in the Staff Handbook and will be updated regularly,” Policy 280 states. 

The school then admitted that although Policy 435, named “Response to Intervention,” was drafted for the Board of Directors in 2012, “discussion/approval cannot be found in our archived minutes.” 

A grievance committee of three appointed members, two of whom work for UNCW, recommended various policy changes (including revising and approving Policy 435) and that “all families should be directed to the current year’s handbook and policies on the CFCI website via clear communication” from administration by the first day of each new school year. The Greenblatt Act requires local boards of education to share their seclusion policies with parents at this time.

As a public charter school, CFCI is not a part of the New Hanover County School district and functions with its own board of directors. It is funded by the state and does not charge tuition.

“We recognize errors have been made, and policies require revisions, and we have made a number of recommendations to address these,” the grievance committee stated to the board of directors. It also stated its belief that all school personnel had been working in the best interest of the students.

CFCI updated its handbook on October 21 to include its seclusion protocols.

“We have been at CFCI for seven years,” Eyles said. “I have never seen any policy or protocol until October 21 when the student handbook was updated.”

A list of detailed questions was sent to CFCI board members and Director Lori Roy last week and received a limited response.

“The appropriate steps have been taken to review the concerns mentioned,” Business Operations Coordinator Katherine Coke responded. “We can provide no further comment at this time.”

CFCI’s seclusion room, pictured from outside and inside, is located in the school’s behavior room. It is five feet by five feet and has uncarpeted flooring, aspects that do not meet state standards. (Port City Daily photo/File)

“Banging on the door and couldn’t get out”

Eyles began having issues with the school several years earlier when she and her husband tried to place their oldest daughter into a gifted education program. After the school didn’t provide it, according to Eyles, she turned to the state’s Office of Charter Schools, which informed her that the school is required to identify its gifted students through a federal law known as Child Find.

The law, created through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, puts the burden on a school district or a charter school to locate, evaluate, and serve all children with disabilities, according to the National Charter School Resource Center. In North Carolina, the state mandates districts and charter schools to also identify and serve gifted students.

“The school took two years to implement gifted testing after the state told them they had to do it,” Eyles said. “Once they did it, they still didn’t have a plan on how they were going to meet the needs of these kids.”

The couple pulled their oldest daughter out of CFCI last October and placed her into a county school, where she was identified as gifted and is now succeeding as a student, according to Eyles.

Meanwhile, her second-grade daughter had been enrolled at CFCI since kindergarten. Eyles said her daughter had sensory sensitivities and began to notice anxiety last spring, and the school informed her that the anxiety could qualify her for a special education program.

But an evaluation didn’t occur until the fall, a time when her anxiety had increased because a new teacher was taking over the classroom. The evaluation showed Eyles’ daughter did well academically and responded well to positive reinforcement, according to one of her past teachers, but that she also exhibited certain behaviors associated with her anxiety: she often refused to enter the classroom, crawled under a table to avoid participation in classroom activities, and isolated herself during recess.

According to Eyles, after two different instances in mid-October when her daughter refused to enter the classroom, she was forced into the school’s seclusion room.

“They closed the door on her,” Eyles said, noting that the door has a handle that can be held shut from the outside. “She was banging on the door and couldn’t get out. I didn’t know they used this room in that way.”

She said that she was first informed of the room when her daughter was placed there in kindergarten; according to Eyles, a behavior specialist said at the time that the door always remained open.

“As a parent in my seventh year at the school, I was shocked they would lock her in this small room, because it counters everything this school is supposed to be about,” Eyles said. “And not once have I ever ready a policy that the room was in use.”

No accountability

Last week the Eyles family met with the school in search of an agreement on a special needs plan for their daughter, but after the meeting she said they decided to withdraw her from the school.

Weeks earlier she had emailed the Office of Charter Schools asking if the state could hold the school accountable for using a seclusion room that didn’t meet state standards.

“Based on the report, there is no other recourse our office can offer at this time,” Ashley Baquero responded. “We have very limited jurisdiction and in a case like this, our office would simply issue the same recommendations as the grievance committee.”

If her daughter was enrolled in the state’s Exceptional Children program at the time, Baquero said, she could file a complaint with that office. But because she was currently in the program’s referral progress, “the only other avenue for recourse would be seeking legal advice independently.”

To Eyles, going public with her complaint is more effective than bringing it to court. And one of her largest concerns is a system where the state can’t keep the school accountable while the school’s own response, at least according to her, has been lacking.

“So the school illegally put my child in a room and that’s it,” Eyles said. “They’re just going to say, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’ There’s no accountability … I hate that my child was in the room. I hate that it happened. But my biggest concern is that the board and the administration don’t seem to care. There’s never been an apology or concern if my child’s okay.”

The school has maintained that it used proper deescalation techniques prior to placing Eyles’ daughter into the seclusion room, and that seclusion itself was used rarely and only “when all other strategies have failed.”

“Based on our professional training and experience, the team believes the actions were appropriate to support the child,” the administration responded to the family’s grievance.

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that two of the three grievance committee members were UNCW employees, not all three as originally stated.]

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