NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Faced with the question Tuesday night, the New Hanover County Board of Education wasn’t prepared to set a goal to reduce or end the practice of seclusion. But some did express interest in eventually establishing an end date.
The issue was brought forth by board member Judy Justice, who called seclusion “almost a form of torture.” In response to her request to talk about the controversial matter as a board, an attorney was brought in to speak to how seclusion is legal in New Hanover County Schools — a review Justice indicated she felt was redundant at this point.
“If you want to keep kicking the can down the road or pretending this isn’t serious to those children that are experiencing it right now, that’s your call,” Justice said.
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On 25 of NHCS’ 45 campuses, there are dedicated rooms for secluding students when they pose a risk to themselves or others. Typically these spaces are padded and include lock hardware to prevent the student from leaving. The enclosures are often situated in special needs classrooms, and there’s no set duration for how long students are left inside.
Most likely, seclusion is used on students who have the procedure outlined in their Individualized Educational Plan, Section 504 plan or behavior intervention plan; however, legally, any student can be subjected to seclusion as reasonably needed to obtain a weapon, prevent or break up a fight, for self-defense, or protect themselves, others or property from “substantial destruction.”
A NHCS spokesperson said a likely example of when a student would be secluded is if they are being physically aggressive and other safety measures were unsuccessful in de-escalating the child. Another would be if a student was slamming their head into the wall or floor, posing the risk of serious self-injury.
In cases longer than 10 minutes, schools legally must inform the family that seclusion was used. NHCS’ practice is to notify parents or guardians the day of.
Although secluding students is lawful in North Carolina, many schools, even ones in NHCS, make do without a room or have even converted the areas to storage or “calming spaces.” Other school districts across the nation have shuttered seclusion rooms, often following lawsuits or investigations for improper use.
Opponents of the technique say it disproportionately affects — and potentially traumatizes — some of the most vulnerable students. In a public comment to the board, Amanda Boomershine recounted a scene she witnessed at Forest Hills Global Elementary in 2015-2016.
“As I was leaving my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class, I heard a child screaming, ‘Please, no, please don’t put me in there again,’” Boomershine recalled. “I looked down the hallway and saw a young Black student being dragged down the hallway by two staff members. One was on each side of the young boy, and he was screaming and crying.”
In 2021, in NHCS, there were 102 incidents of restraint and 138 instances of seclusion, according to data Port City Daily obtained through a public records request. (Restraint involves school personnel using reasonable force. It is different from seclusion, but the two often go hand in hand.) Of those, 81 involved Black male students, compared to 38 white boys. Seventy-six of the instances involved Black girls across five schools and six were among white females across four schools. The district’s population is roughly 17% Black.
Hispanic males accounted for seven instances and boys of multiple ethnicities made up 19 cases. Two cases involved a female or females of multiple ethnicities.
There were also 11 instances without specifics of the students’ race or sex.
It’s likely a number of the cases involved the same student, who could have an IEP, 504 or behavioral plan outlining the use. In this case, the parent or guardian is aware of the practice.
Incidents of seclusion or restraint:
- Lake Forest Academy: 31 restraint, 34 seclusion
- Forest Hills Global Elementary: 12 restraint, 60 seclusion
- Alderman Elementary: 14 restraint, 4 seclusion
- Murrayville Elementary: 1 restraint, 15 seclusion
- Myrtle Grove Middle: 14 restraint, five seclusion
- Winter Park Model Elementary: five restraint, four seclusion
- Eaton Elementary: one restraint, two seclusions
- Holly Tree Elementary: four restraint, one seclusion
- Wrightsboro Elementary: three restraint
- Snipes Academy: six restraint, six seclusion
- John J Blair Elementary: four restraint, one seclusion
- Masonboro Elementary: two restraint, five seclusion
- College Park Elementary: one restraint
- Bradley Creek Elementary: one restraint
- Trask Middle: one seclusion
NHCS is in the process of designing two new elementary schools and is incorporating seclusion rooms into the plans, as is the district’s standard per its existing building guidelines. While central office administrators have said they are exploring less restrictive practices, it has not committed to stopping seclusion, despite growing concern from the public.
“If we’re building schools and putting new ones in, is that the intention?” vice-chair Stephanie Walker said. “I understand legally there are IEPs that have [seclusion] in there, but at the same time, I think, the discussion should be moved towards what we can do to eventually not have to use them. And we can do that.”
Board member Nelson Beaulieu defended the practice, after having helped review the district’s seclusion policy as chair of the policy committee last year.
“I’ve yet to see somebody come forward and say, ‘We have a policy, and you’re doing it wrong.’ I’ve yet to see that,” he said. “And to say that New Hanover County Schools engages in some kind of torture — that’s just not correct. We’re not torturing our children. We’re not almost torturing our children.”
Justice disputed: “You say it’s policy, so it can’t be wrong — that makes no sense. I mean, that’s never made any sense. That’s why we have policy, and we have people up here to decide on changing it or keeping it.”
Board member Hugh McManus vocalized he was ready to respond, but not then. First, he wanted a plan in place for how teachers should react when a student would “lose control” and pose a threat to his or her classmates. Board chair Stephanie Kraybill asked if he wanted to incorporate a goal of ending seclusion into the four-year strategic plan, which is soon up for adoption.
“I think we need to deal with it before school ends,” McManus responded.
This article was updated to include examples of incidents that would lead to seclusion from NHCS.