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Searchligt New Mexico Magazine

© 2019 Searchlight New Mexico.  |  All rights reserved. For republishing terms, see Guidelines. 

Images by Don Usner

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

Parents, regulators left in the dark over school behavior management techniques

ALBUQUERQUE — When Urijah Salazar arrived home from school on March 1, his mother immediately saw that something was off. A fourth-grade special education student at Montezuma Elementary, Urijah often came home from school upset, but on this day he seemed particularly rattled — shaking mad, detached, almost in a state of shock. 

 

Nadia McGilbert drew a bath to help him relax, and as soon as he stepped into the tub she saw the injuries: a deep, avocado-shaped bruise on his forearm, scratches, apparently from sharp fingernails, on both arms. 

 

“Oh my God,” she sputtered. “Is this what they did to you at school?” 

 

Urijah nodded and said it hurt to breathe. McGilbert shut off the bath, told him to get dressed, and grabbed her car keys. 

 

At UNM Hospital’s emergency room, doctors confirmed her worst suspicions. According to their discharge notes, Urijah’s injuries were sustained when teachers placed him in a “team control position” — a technique in which two adults pull a child’s arms backward and force the head toward the ground. 

 

“You couldn’t imagine the pain,” said Urijah, 10, struggling for the right words. “Like, it feels like you’re being pulled apart.”

Less than a week later, Urijah repeated the behavior he had already exhibited countless times earlier — he tried to leave the classroom and go home without permission. And once again, Montezuma teachers restrained and secluded him in a room. 

 

Such instances of restraint and seclusion are supposed to be rare, but it was at least the 150th time Urijah had been placed in a hold by school teachers in less than four years, according to a Searchlight analysis of his education records. 

 

Often referred to within Albuquerque Public Schools as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a controversial and highly dangerous method of behavior management that frequently leads to injury of both students and school staff. Under state law, it is allowed only in extreme circumstances — when a child poses an immediate physical threat to himself or others. Yet in APS, restraint and seclusion are used to manage the behavior of difficult students on a near daily basis. 

APS employees are trained in using multiple restraints on students, including a “team control position,” pictured above. It is the hold that injured Urijah Salazar on March 1, 2019. 

Illustration by Aliya Mood 

While APS officials have reported zero instances of restraint to federal regulators, school documents like the excerpt from this Individualized Education Plan show the practices used on a near-daily basis.

As court documents reveal, students in the district have been forced into seclusion rooms, or so-called “calm down” spaces, that are not only unventilated but, in some cases, so small as to violate state safety standards. Attorneys interviewed for this story say they have seen walls of seclusion rooms smeared with blood and mucus, apparently from children confined there in a panic. 

 

Hundreds of deaths from restraint have been documented in schools, psychiatric facilities, residential homes and other settings across the country, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the National Disability Rights Network and others. When death occurs, it’s typically from a type of suffocation called “restraint-related positional asphyxia.” 

 

When used on a child in the midst of a mental health crisis, the practice can spark long-term, traumatic effects — even when no physical injury occurs. 

 

School data indicates that there have been at least 4,600 cases of restraint since 2014, and teachers interviewed by Searchlight say that number is certainly an undercount because many incidents are never entered into the system.

APS, meanwhile, has shrouded its use of restraint and seclusion in secrecy, refusing to release records to parents, attorneys, and the media. The practice is often carried out without legally required documentation, leaving parents — as well as state and federal oversight agencies — in the dark.

 

In its reporting to the federal government, APS has consistently — and falsely — denied that it uses restraint at all. 

 

APS superintendent Raquel Reedy, special education associate superintendent Lucinda Sanchez, compliance director Cindy Soo Hoo, and Lila Ramirez, who oversees APS’s behavior tracking system, all declined to comment. 

 

In order to report this story, Searchlight spoke with dozens of parents, as well as teachers, educational assistants, students and attorneys. Searchlight also reviewed more than 5,000 pages of educational and legal records, and filed multiple public records requests with APS.

Urijah Salazar. Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Acts of desperation 

Students with disabilities make up two-thirds of restraint and seclusion cases, according to national data. They are disproportionately African American or — like Urijah Salazar — Native American. That disparity has led the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and 56 other legal and social justice organizations to issue a 2018 joint statement calling for a federal ban on the practice in public schools.

 

Yet school superintendents and administrators have repeatedly defended the restraint and seclusion of special education students, saying the techniques are necessary to manage behavior that can be disruptive or dangerous. 

 

“We believe the use of seclusion and restraint has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioral conditions to be educated not only within our public schools, but also in the least restrictive and safest environments possible,” declared the American Association of School Administrators in a 2012 position paper entitled “Keeping Schools Safe: How Seclusion and Restraint Protects Students and School Personnel.” 

 

At the same time, the techniques have come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers. The Keeping All Students Safe Act, a bill to outlaw seclusion and give students federal protections against restraint, died in the U.S. Senate in 2010 after passing the House; the bill was reintroduced, most recently in 2018, but has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote. In 2017, New Mexico joined 29 other states in passing a law setting tight limits on the use of restraint and seclusion. In response to widespread complaints, the law put strict reporting requirements on schools, mandating that parents be immediately notified of any incident of restraint or seclusion.

 

But a 10-month investigation by Searchlight has revealed that its use remains widespread in Albuquerque Public Schools, where it is routinely used to manage special education students. Like Urijah Salazar, many of those students are restrained or secluded after becoming overwhelmed and frustrated in class. Amid staff shortages, inadequate training, and a lack of clear guidance from district leadership, teachers sometimes use restraint and seclusion as a first response to moderate, non-threatening misbehavior such as “inappropriate verbalizations” and property destruction, according to both education and legal records.

Albuquerque Public Schools contracts with Crisis Prevention Institute, a private Milwaukee-based company, to train its teachers and staff how to physically restrain students. Originally formed in 1980 for use in psychiatric institutions and co-founded by a black belt practitioner of judo and karate, CPI now earns millions per year, according to corporate filings with various states, by training teachers across the country in de-escalation techniques and restraint holds meant to avoid asphyxiation. 

 

Every APS school is supposed to have its own restraint team, according to numerous lawyers, teachers and parents interviewed by Searchlight. The “Physical Crisis Team,” as it’s usually known, consists of teachers and other staff who have received CPI training. When an alert comes over the school’s communications network, each team member rushes from his or her own classroom and, almost inevitably, aids in restraining the student who is acting out. 

 

In promotional materials, CPI emphasizes that its training is focused on using restraint as a last resort, and that teachers should try to verbally defuse situations before using a restraint hold. Critics, however, say that CPI and other similar programs encourage educators to focus on student behavior rather than dealing with the root causes of that behavior.

 

“We have to remember that whether you’re restraining a student or trying to verbally diffuse or de-escalate them, you’re reacting after the situation is already bad,” said Ross W. Greene, a child psychologist who has studied classroom behavior for decades. “Restraint and seclusion are really just acts of desperation by school staff. What does it say to a kid that you are acting desperately in the face of his difficulties?”

A routine of restraint

Urijah’s first restraint happened in October 2015 at Arroyo del Oso Elementary School, two months into his first-grade year. Diagnosed with developmental delay, sensory processing disorder, receptive and expressive language disorder and emotional disturbance, the boy had been growing increasingly overwhelmed in class and tried repeatedly to flee school. Intercepted by staff, he began kicking and swinging his arms in protest — which is when, according to teachers’ notes, the school’s behavior management specialist placed the then-6-year-old in a restraint hold.

 

Before the school year was up, he had been suspended four times and restrained at least seven more — almost always for trying to run away from school. Five months into the year, staff conducted a threat assessment on Urijah and flagged him to district officials as a danger. In March, Arroyo del Oso’s principal informed his mother that the school could no longer handle her son. 

 

APS transferred Urijah to Governor Bent Elementary School, where he was restrained by teachers on his first day of class, according to school records provided by his mother. Staff at his new school restrained him at least another 18 times within a little more than two months, and then administrators informed McGilbert they would be transferring Urijah to yet another school: Montezuma Elementary, which houses a program for children with disability-related behavior problems. 

 

That program, administrators told McGilbert, could offer Urijah much needed resources to help deal with his problem behaviors and succeed academically. What they did not tell her was that Montezuma restrains far more students than any other elementary school in the district.

In fact, Montezuma accounted for a third of all restraints of elementary school children during the 2015-’16 school year, according to a Searchlight analysis of district data. That same data shows that Grant Middle School and Jimmy Carter Middle School, which house programs for middle schoolers with behavior problems, together accounted for 88 percent of restraint team calls in APS’s 27 middle schools. 

 

These numbers are based on data obtained by Pegasus Legal Services, a nonprofit Albuquerque law firm that represents abused and neglected children, runaways, and other youth. APS did not fulfill public records requests filed by Searchlight for more recent data on individual schools, but aggregate data indicates that the number of cases decreased in the 2018-’19 school year.

 

By the end of Urijah’s first year at Montezuma, staff had restrained him more than 100 times. At one point, school records show, he was restrained 13 times in a single day. On many such occasions, McGilbert said she received no notification from the school.  Nor, she added, did staff ever meet with her to plan a way for avoiding future restraints -  even after a 2017 law went into effect requiring those meetings.

 

“My stomach was in knots every morning,” McGilbert said. “It was like going straight into the lion’s den. I could barely walk to the car to drive him to school, because I didn’t know if he would get hurt in class again.” 

 

In 2016, she began having panic attacks — brought on, she said, by the uncertainty surrounding her son’s school problems. At one point, her anxiety became so intense that she checked herself into a hospital. McGilbert told Searchlight that she spent four days there undergoing treatment for stress-induced kidney failure.

Parents kept in the dark

In more than 50 interviews conducted for this story, parents frequently echoed McGilbert’s frustration, describing maddening efforts to get information about their children’s experience with restraint and seclusion. 

 

Sarah Bateman-Twocrow, whose 8-year-old son Arnold was restrained “almost daily” at Montezuma and other schools following autism-related outbursts, has tried for years to get comprehensive documentation from the district. Often, she said, Arnold would come home with bruising on his arms, unable to articulate what had caused them; on one occasion she arrived at school to pick him up only to see him being pinned to the ground by three adults. 

Urijah embraces his mother, Nadia McGilbert. Don J. Usner 

“I was in shock,” Bateman-Twocrow recalled, her voice quivering. “There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing your child being restrained by a group of grown men.”

 

A psychiatrist diagnosed Arnold with PTSD following the restraints, she said. In April 2019, at Searchlight’s suggestion, his mother sent a written request to APS for all documentation of her son’s restraint and seclusion. She said her request was ignored. 

 

Gabrielle Heisey, whose 14-year-old son Raymond has been routinely restrained and secluded at numerous APS schools for autism-related behaviors — including, according to school documents obtained by her attorney, for such minor infractions as refusing to get off the bus or breaking his own glasses in frustration — was likewise not given documentation by school staff. Sometimes, Heisey said she learned about the incidents only after finding finger-shaped bruises on Raymond’s arms. APS did not respond to Heisey’s requests for her son’s records, she said. 

 

In the course of this investigation, Searchlight worked with 20 parents to request documentation of their children’s restraint and seclusion in Albuquerque schools. Despite the fact that parents have a legal right to inspect their children’s education records, all 20 of those parents said their requests went unfulfilled. Over the years, when pressed in court and in administrative hearings, district officials have maintained that collecting data on restraint and seclusion would be too labor intensive. 

 

“Gathering information… as to all uses of physical management … would require contact between district staff and each and every school. This task would require the attention of district staff for several weeks,” testified Cindy Soo Hoo, the APS compliance director, in a 2015 affidavit

 

“They have never invested in trying to really understand the harmfulness of restraint, or how would we could avoid using it,” said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque attorney who represents dozens of families of students with disabilities.

 

Perhaps most critically, APS has repeatedly filed misleading reports with the federal government.

A pattern of lax record-keeping

Like all school districts, APS is required to report every instance of restraint and seclusion to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) division. But for the past 10 years, district leadership has claimed no incidents of restraint in any of APS’s 143 schools, CRDC data shows. The same data show that there have been just five cases of seclusion reported since 2009, only one of which involved a student with disabilities. 

 

In submitting that data, APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy or an authorized designate must certify the numbers as “true and correct.” 

 

Andy Gutierrez, senior director of APS’s Student Information Systems, confirmed that the district again claimed no instances for the 2017-’18 school year, the most recent year for which reporting was required. 

 

“The Albuquerque Public Schools district … does not use this form of discipline disposition in our schools or programs and there is no discipline code for restraint or seclusion in our Student Information System (SIS),” Gutierrez wrote in an email to Searchlight on May 10. “Since this discipline data does not exist in our SIS we do not report it as part of our CRDC or State Reporting data submissions.”

 

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that APS is not alone in misrepresenting its use of restraint and seclusion to the Department of Education. That report, published in June, found that districts across the country vastly underreport their use of the controversial techniques, raising questions about the pervasiveness of restraint and seclusion as a discipline tool and making it difficult for the federal government to enforce civil rights protections. 

 

The GAO found that, during the 2015-’16 school year, 70 percent of districts nationally — and 84 percent of school districts in New Mexico — reported zero incidents, a number that the agency called out as evidence of a “pervasive pattern of underreporting of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.” 

 

Parents have reported to Searchlight that their children were restrained and secluded at schools in Alamogordo, Española, Grants, Los Lunas, Pecos, Las Cruces and Estancia — all districts that claimed zero instances in reports to the federal government. 

 

“This issue is important because inappropriately applied, restraint and seclusion can and has resulted in serious injury or death to children … our grave concern with this data is that we don't really know” what’s going on inside classrooms in Albuquerque and elsewhere, said Jackie Nowicki, director of the GAO's Education, Workforce, and Income Security team.

Permanent state of emergency

Hours before McGilbert rushed Urijah to the emergency room last March, the fourth grader had been playing a computer game in his Social-Emotional Support Services classroom, a special education program at Montezuma for kids with persistent behavior problems. It had been a particularly tough year for Urijah, and his nerves were frayed from the near-constant restraint holds staff had placed him in. 

 

When told to stop playing the game and return to his assignment, he became aggressive, hitting and kicking, according to school documents. Two adults grabbed him, held him in a team control position for 25 minutes — bruising and scratching his arms in the process — and then secluded him for 70 minutes.

 

Special education advocates say that restraining or secluding a child for behavior like Urijah’s — that is, behavior that is predictable and consistent — is not only irresponsible but also illegal, since restraint and seclusion are allowed only in emergency situations. Child psychologists and psychiatrists are adamant that the research uniformly shows damage from restraint and seclusion. Instead of “calming” students down, it makes them more likely to act out aggressively in the future, plunging classrooms into a cycle of outburst and restraint. 

 

“There might be a rare emergency circumstance where restraint could be necessary,” said George Davis, former director of psychiatry for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. “But if the same emergency happens over and over again, it's just not an emergency — it's poor planning, and it’s failure to respond to the kid’s needs. The fact that it continues to be standard operating procedure is beyond negligent.”

 

For years, teachers in APS have complained that they are frequently so overwhelmed that they are unable to respond to such behaviors in productive ways. In 2018, Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, voiced these concerns in an ATF publication devoted to what the organization termed a “crisis in the classroom:” 

 

“For some time now, teachers, especially in kindergarten and first grade, have been seeking help from their union because they have students in crisis in their classrooms. … Frustrated with the lack of systemic support, they call — sometimes crying; often ready to quit; always in desperation — because when kids are in crisis, teachers are in crisis.”

 

With special education classrooms overcrowded and understaffed, many teachers report that they are left unprepared to deal with chaotic and even dangerous situations. Special education teachers, in short supply statewide, made up 36 percent of all educator vacancies in 2018, according to a report from New Mexico State University. Many special education teachers hold only an entry-level license, which provides minimal on-the-ground experience with disabilities and related behaviors. 

 

Teachers and educational assistants describe the district as taking an indifferent approach to discipline issues, with schools having to craft their own procedures for responding to difficult behaviors without guidance from the superintendent. In fact, all teachers interviewed for this story said they were never informed of the 2017 state law or the guidelines it sets on the use of restraint and seclusion.

 

"It can be just overwhelming, and there’s been no guidance from the district on how to deal with these situations,” said one special education teacher who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “So when a student is being disruptive, sometimes people think the easiest thing to do is have a [crisis] team come deal with it. When that happens, everybody ends up escalated — the teachers, the other students, everybody.”

 

In APS administrative hearings, teachers have publicly reported having nightmares, anxiety and PTSD following incidents of restraint and seclusion. Some have suffered broken bones and concussions while trying to restrain children, according to interviews, incident reports and hearing transcripts obtained by Searchlight. 

   

“Can you imagine how hard it is to manage your own adrenaline while restraining a child who is in the middle of a crisis?” asked Sonya Romero-Smith, who teaches both special education and general education kindergartners at Lew Wallace Elementary in downtown Albuquerque. “I’ve lost sleep over this. No teacher wants to be in a position where they might hurt a child. This is not what I signed up to do.” 

 

And because federal law requires that special education students be schooled in the least restrictive environments, teachers say incidents of restraint and seclusion are increasingly occurring in general education classrooms.

 

“We’re not fixing any of the root causes of these behaviors,” said Romero-Smith. “We’re just triaging. We need support from the district to be able to implement some real solutions.” 

 

On that point, parents and teachers agree. And just as overwhelmed teachers are leaving APS’s special education system in droves, so too are parents removing their kids from the district — sometimes homeschooling out of desperation, sometimes leaving the state altogether. 

 

As Urijah Salazar nears the end of his time in elementary school, his mother isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She’s worried about the transition to sixth grade, given the deep mistrust of school staff that Urijah has developed after years of restraint and seclusion. 

 

“He doesn’t trust anyone at school, and why should he?” McGilbert said. “It’s been trauma after trauma. He’s never had the chance to just be a kid.” 

Want to learn more? Sign up for our free community forum on restraint and  seclusion, featuring Ross Greene, the New Mexico Public Education Department and more. Visit searchlightnm.org/beyondpunishment.