Monday, February 26, 2024

CFCI board meeting brings Wilmington charter school’s ‘seclusion room’ problem into focus

A board meeting held last week emphasized the need for the school’s seclusion room without addressing how the room didn’t meet state requirements or why there had been no policy outlining its use to students’ parents. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — The board of directors, administrators, teachers, and parents filled a classroom at Cape Fear Center for Inquiry last week and heard a presentation on the legal use of seclusion and restraint as “last resort” methods in dealing with unsafe student behavior. 

But while the meeting highlighted the school’s need for its seclusion room — use of the room was suspended last fall after the school admitted that it did not meet minimum state requirements — at no time was there discussion of the illegality of the room, or how administrators planned to fix it. Additionally, no one addressed why there wasn’t a published policy for seclusion in the first place, or why the parents of a recently secluded child were not informed that the room would be used with its door shut.

Related: Wilmington charter school suspends use of seclusion room after illegal usage

Instead, the presentation and ensuing conversation focused on the necessity of a seclusion room over the more severe method of physically restraining a student.

For Sandy Eyles, a mother who had filed a grievance with the school after learning her seven-year-old daughter was forced and locked inside the room twice last October, one of her central complaints was that she was never told the 25-square-foot “safe room,” located inside the school’s behavior room, would ever be used with its door closed. She also believes her daughter, who struggles with anxiety and sensory sensitivities, never exhibited the dangerous behaviors outlined in last week’s presentation as a prerequisite to using the seclusion method.

A promise to keep the door open

In an email sent to Eyles in March 2018 by the school’s behavior specialist, Kelly Rooney, she described moving Eyles’ daughter inside the room but informed her the “door was left open the entire time.” She even directed her to come out of the room, which at first the child refused to do before eventually exiting when she was calm.

“The purpose of this room is to keep kids safe,” Rooney told Eyles in the email. “It is used as a relaxation space, separate setting or simply an escape when students are overwhelmed and need to be alone.” 

The email was sent three days after a behavior intervention plan was implemented for the child for when she exhibited negative behaviors of crying, screaming, kicking her shoes off, kicking classroom furniture, or throwing items.

“[The] student will be taken to an administrator’s office to calm down. If the dangerous behavior continues, the safe room will be used to minimize the attention given for the negative behavior. The door will remain open,” the plan stated.

Although the negative behaviors were described as “dangerous” when they became severe, the plan never said the room would be used for seclusion, which requires the door to be shut. State law defines seclusion as the “confinement of a student alone in an enclosed space … physically prevented from leaving by locking hardware or other means.”

Rooney also said in last week’s presentation to the board and administration that seclusion should only be used after “we have tried every other single thing in our arsenal to reduce the risk, to de-escalate the behavior.”

CFCI’s seclusion room, pictured from outside and inside, is five feet by five feet and has uncarpeted flooring, aspects that do not meet state standards. The door handle must be pressed down from outside to lock it. (Port City Daily photo/File)

“That includes keeping the door open,” Rooney said. “That includes putting my body in the crack of the door, where I’m essentially in the room with the student. If that’s not safe, that includes putting my foot in the door, and seeing if I can monitor that way. Every single possible thing that can be done — to be done before the door is closed — is done.”

However, Eyles’ daughter was locked inside the room for 28 minutes last October, according to an incident report, after refusing to enter her classroom. Rooney was on maternity leave at the time, Eyles said.

The report shows that a trained employee held down a locking handle on the door while monitoring her from a small window. Eyles found out about the incident when her daughter returned home and told her she was “banging on the door and couldn’t get out” of the safe room.

She contrasted the times her daughter was placed in the room as a kindergartener in 2018 — when she was “not held against her will, and I was given no indication she was kicking, screaming, banging on the door to get out,” she said — and the two incidents last October.

“When [my daughter] told me about the room [in 2018], she was not upset or traumatized by it,” Eyles said. “She did not express that she was afraid of the room at that time. She continued to trust the staff involved and sought them out when she was upset. This was a drastic change from her response in October. After the October incidents she was afraid of school, afraid of staff, and has frequently told me she was afraid someone was behind her and would grab her. She has expressed this fear many times both at home and at school.”

Eyles believes that if Rooney was at the school last October, her daughter would not have been forced into seclusion, which to her shows a problem with the decision-making among the trained staff members who handled the two incidents.

“She is skilled with my daughter and would not have touched her in this scenario,” Eyles said of Rooney. “I know this because of her past interactions with her.”

A new policy still not in place

A list of detailed questions was sent to board members and administrators last week, including whether Eyles’ child exhibited dangerous behavior prior to the two October incidents or if there was any behavior plan specifically outlining the use of seclusion — two requirements set by the state to legally use the seclusion method.

They were also asked why the school didn’t have a policy in place for seclusion or whether Eyles and her husband were ever informed that the room would be used on their daughter with the door held shut.

There was no response from administrators or board members.

In its responses to the grievance filed by Eyles last fall, the administration was ambiguous about whether there was a policy in place for seclusion and restraint.

Eyles said the school took six days to provide its seclusion protocols when requested, and in response to the grievance, administrators said its policy isn’t specific to seclusion, but rather to its Crisis Management Plan policy — a plan that itself had not been developed.

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

Another policy named “Response to Intervention” was drafted for the board in 2012, but neither discussion or approval could be found in the school’s archived minutes, according to the administration’s response to the grievance.

During last Tuesday’s board meeting, it was clear that Policy 281, “Seclusion and Restraint,” was a new policy. A scheduled first reading of the policy, however, was tabled until the next meeting. A vote would come after revisions are considered and agreed upon.

Eyles said the administration finally responded regarding an option of mediation between the two sides, as recommended by the grievance committee last fall. Their response came 88 days after the grievance committee issued their responses. The committee strongly recommended a mediation meeting within 90 days of its report.

According to Eyles, board members apologized for their late response but said a vote is still needed to approve of any mediation.

“It is very concerning the school board and administration has been silent regarding reconciling with my family,” Eyles told board members last week. “What is the point of a grievance committee if the school does not have the decency to uphold its duty to respond in a timely matter?”

It appears there has been a change on the board, although it is not clear whether that change is related to the school’s response to the seclusion incidents. Ashley Cooksley, who was the chair of the board and presided over last Tuesday’s meeting, is no longer listed as a board member on the school’s website. Lakeasha Glaspie is now listed as the acting chair.

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