NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two years of demands to end the practice of seclusion in New Hanover County schools culminated in a vote to close seclusion rooms and restrict the practice to emergencies next school year.
The amendments to policy 4302 received unanimous approval, despite a push from vice chair Stephanie Walker to add a vote aimed at ending seclusion totally. Advocates against seclusion have been outspoken with their criticism of the amendments, claiming they are not restrictive enough.
“I think eliminating the practice is really what we’re trying to go for,” Walker said during the meeting.
Walker moved to include a vote on ending the practice to the Tuesday night agenda. She asked to place the item ahead of the scheduled discussion and action on the policy amendments. Board member Judy Justice supported the move, noting the board could form the policy around ending the practice.
“We can tailor the policy the way we want,” she said. “[Ending seclusion] is a definite want.”
However, the attempt to add the agenda item failed 5-2.
Approved hours later, the revised policy will close the districts’ 25 seclusion rooms across 45 schools in the 2023-2024 school year and specifies seclusion should only be used in emergency situations, which it identifies as applicable in the following situations:
- as reasonably needed to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects on the person or within the control of a student
- as reasonably needed to maintain order or to prevent or break up a fight
- as reasonably needed for self-defense
- as reasonably needed to ensure the safety of any student, employee, volunteer, or other person present
The current policy allows seclusion with a student’s behavior plan or to “teach a skill, calm or comfort a student, or prevent self-injurious behavior.” Seclusion for these reasons will no longer be allowed for the 2023-2024 school year.
However, activists that have pushed for ending the practice entirely say the amendments do not go far enough. They surmise removing seclusion rooms will open up the opportunity to seclude students anywhere.
“We have 10 years of documentation that NHCS has been using seclusion in ways that appear to be inconsistent with state law and board policy,” said activist Sandy Eyles, who partners with advocacy groups, such as NHC Educational Justice, Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint and Lives in the Balance. “There are no safeguards in the new policy that will prevent this from continuing.”
In August 2012, the school district was investigated by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for potential violations discriminatory use of seclusion against students with disabilities. However, the office concluded the district was complying with state law.
In a United States Department of Education report from the same year, state leaders recommended against seclusion unless there is a “threat of imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or others.” It also noted every effort should be made to prevent the need for seclusion and it should never be used solely as a disciplinary measure.
Almost a decade later, data shows the district’s use of seclusion was still frequent, yet in decline. During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 908 documented seclusions, 2019-2020 there were 751, and 2020-2021 there were 397. Black students were secluded four times more than their white peers in 2021.
“This policy does not have proper safeguards to prevent NHCS’s from violating their own policy and state law,” Eyles said.
With the seclusion rooms shut-down, the district will be able to seclude people in unsafe environments, Eyles argued, leading to further student safety concerns.
However, Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam stressed the importance of keeping seclusion available for the most extreme circumstances. She said isolating a student due to wielding a weapon, breaking up a fight and even a principal office visit — where a student is told to remain in the room — would all meet the definition of seclusion.
“So that’s what cannot be taken away to maintain a safe and orderly environment,” she said during the meeting.
She explained no other district policy would address seclusion in emergency situations, unlike other allowances in current policy that will become irrelevant starting next school year. Varnam added excluding the practice to emergencies will “vastly” reduce the amount of seclusions the district has seen in the past.
Aside from preserving some form of seclusion, Eyles also worries about the policy’s lack of clauses to better hold the district accountable for seclusion occurrences.
“We are concerned that reporting and documentation of seclusions will be less likely to occur moving forward,” she said.
For the remainder of the 2022-2023 school year, seclusion will only be used in the most rare circumstances — to de-escalate physical injury of others when all other intervention has failed and in accordance with a student’s behavior plan.
According to the policy, school personnel must report to the principal or another designee any prohibited use of seclusion and any seclusion exceeding 10 minutes, or the amount of time specified in a student’s behavior intervention plan. If a principal is notified of either of those instances, then the student’s parent or guardian must be told no later than the following workday.
Varnam said the district is planning to train educators to develop deescalation strategies and other methods to avoid seclusion. Trauma-centered training has already been scheduled for district employees, and Varnam said staff were just approved to use leftover ESSER funds to pay for additional training.
Eyles said she and fellow advocates will continue their efforts.. She noted one way is to provide more training and resources for employees, along with advocating for more staff, more funding from county commissioners, smaller class sizes and adoption of crisis intervention models.
“This current policy is not safe,” Eyles said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com