NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The amendments that would further restrict the use of seclusion and restraint in New Hanover County Schools are now in writing; however, the policy recommendation does not abolish it in its entirety.
The New Hanover County school board reviewed additions and changes to the policy at their meeting on Tuesday, yet decided to move any action to “at least” the next board meeting on Nov. 1.
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Vice Chair Stephanie Walker said during the meeting. “I would like to see us have a little time for the community to give feedback, for faculty and staff to give feedback, for any additions.”
The amendments dictate seclusion rooms should be used only in rare circumstances to de-escalate situations where the physical safety of students or staff are at risk. They also stipulate seclusion rooms will no longer be “operational” beginning in the 2023-2024 school year.
All instances of seclusion will be done “in accordance with the determination” of a student’s Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan — both federal documents determining a child’s learning and behavioral needs — or behavior intervention plan plus parent or guardian consent.
The policy committee, made up of board members Nelson Beaulieu, Stephanie Kraybill and Pete Wildeboer, approved the recommendations on Oct. 11.
Notably, the amendments do not end the practice of seclusion, only eliminate the use of seclusion rooms. It states:
“As for the 2023-24 school year, rooms designed specifically for seclusion will no longer be operational for seclusion.”
Wildeboer asked why that was the case to Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam, who presented the amendments to the board on Tuesday.
“There is concern with removing all options for seclusion,” she said.
Varnam explained that school employees may need to separate themselves and others if a student exhibits dangerous behavior should other intervention methods become exhausted. While seclusion rooms would not be used, if a student needed to be restricted to a classroom alone, that would qualify as seclusion under the general statute definition.
A fight between students was one example Varnam used: “You may have to separate students in order to maintain order.”
At the policy committee meeting last week, she cited another example: if a student brandished a weapon.
“We step outside of that space and close that door, that is seclusion,” Varnam said. “It doesn’t require a seclusion room to be secluded.”
One of many outspoken community members against seclusion is Peter Rawitsch, who co-founded a local chapter of Love Our Children, a national nonprofit focused on ending violence and neglect of children.
He wrote to the board and Varnam on Oct. 12 asking them to reconsider the language of the policy, advocating the amendment directly state seclusion should not be used.
“Use SROs [school resource officers] if a child is so violent or out-of-control that he or she needs to be professionally disarmed,” Rawitsch wrote.
The proposed amendments also include language from the North Carolina School Boards Association to clarify seclusions should not be used as a disciplinary measure or in discrimination toward students with disabilities.
Using improper seclusion on students is a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act; alleged violations have been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Educational Opportunities Section. The department gets involved when school districts have a “regular practice of secluding students with disabilities, and of using seclusion without justification and as a substitute for appropriate behavior and classroom management.”
Several school districts have reached settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice; the most recent was Cedar Rapids Community School District in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in September. Investigators reviewed the district’s procedures, held virtual interviews with employees and conducted a site visit. The district agreed to end its use of seclusion, limit its use of restraint and implement policies and procedures to assess suicide risk and crisis intervention measures, among other agreements.
In New Hanover County Schools, many of the incidents of seclusion in 2021 involved students with IEP or Section 504 plans, according to data obtained by Port City Daily.
There were 102 incidents of restraint and 138 instances of seclusion, and data shows incidents are also disproportionate to NHCS racial demographics — 81 incidents 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.
Language was also added to the policy to prohibit prone restraint. The addition reads:
“Prone restraint is a form of physical restraint in which a person is held in a face-down position on the floor or other surface. Prone restraint does not include placement in a face-down position as part of a necessary medical intervention. The use of prone restraint is prohibited.”
The amendments were drafted following the completion of each school’s improvement plan, which were presented to the board at the interim meeting. PCD reached out to each board member to ask if they would vote in favor of the amendments based on the plans and received no response.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com