The Hell Rooms of Calvert County Public Schools, Part IV: What took so long?

On December 1, 2018 the Maryland State Department of Education published a report titled “Restraint and Seclusion Data Collection, Findings, and Recommendations.” This report shows the number of restraint incidents and the number of seclusion incidents reported in each Maryland county during the 2017-2018 school year. Calvert County reported 701 incidents of seclusion and 576 incidents of restraint for the school year. Though only 14th in size in terms of total school enrollment, Calvert County was first in its percentage of seclusion incidents and second for restraint incidents in the State. Waller Squared Media Productions has previously published a series of articles addressing this issue in Calvert County Public Schools.

In light of the recent articles on your blog, the Maryland State Department of Education’s] Division of Early Intervention/Special Education Services conducted an on-site visit [of Calvert County Public Schools] earlier this week“, wrote William Reinhard, the Director of Communications at the Maryland State Dept. of Education. In an email to Waller Squared Media Productions, Rinehard added “MSDE’s visit this week included a tour of the referenced school and the rooms identified as well as a review of the system’s behavior policies, including written and documented restraint and seclusion practices.”

In light of the recent articles on your blog, the Maryland State Department of Education’s] Division of Early Intervention/Special Education Services conducted an on-site visit [of Calvert County Public Schools] earlier this week

William Reinhard, the Director of Communications at the Maryland State Dept. of Education.

For one parent and child in Calvert County, MSDE’s response may be too little, too late. The parent, who has agreed to be identified publically by the initials “NC”, contacted Waller Squared Media Productions shortly after our first article in this series was published. “NC” wishes to remain anonymous out of a desire to maintain privacy for her son. “NC” subsequently provided us with a series of documents detailing the issues her son faced while in the Calvert County Public School’s Special Education program. In this article, “NC’s” son will be referred to simply as the child.

The child has been diagnosed with autism and a number of emotional and developmental challenges.  “NC” contends that the use of restraint and seclusion was included in the child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), even though she opposed the provision. “NC” also claimed that a Calvert County Public School Behavior Specialist told her that restraint and seclusion would be practiced whenever the school deemed the child was “a danger”, and that it could never be removed from his IEP.

“NC” grew concerned over the frequency of restraint and seclusion being practiced on her son in school. She voiced her concern to the then principal of the school. In a March 22, 2016 letter to “NC”, the Calvert Country School principal offered the following explanation as to the justification for the use of restraint and seclusion: “When it is necessary to protect a student or another person and less intrusive interventions have not been effective, staff are required to respond immediately to the situation in order to eliminate or reduce any chance of injury to the student or other students or staff [emphasis added.]” The principal further explained that school staff utilize Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) “safe, non-harmful restraint and transport positions.” (NOTE: Our previous reporting addressed the standard of imminent, serious physical harm required for the practice of seclusion and restraint. This standard is not the same as “reduce any chance of injury” as cited by the principal in the letter to “NC”)

“NC” subsequently telephoned and emailed Marjorie Shulbank of the Maryland State Department of Education for help and guidance. In a March 2016 email to Ms. Shulbank, “NC” wrote: “I have inquired about the specific criteria they use in regards to determining if the child is an imminent harm to himself or others, which they use to determine appropriateness of the use of restraint and or seclusion. I have not been provided with any information other than COMAR constantly being repeatedly cited.”  “NC” provided Ms. Shulbank with the letter she received from the Calvert Country School principal, in which the principal describes a standard different than that which is required by Maryland regulations.

“NC” also provided Waller Squared with the written response she received from the school when she requested that the staff stop practicing seclusion on her son. (NOTE: In it’s response, the school refers to the practice of seclusion as “CPI”. CPI is short for Crisis Prevention Institute, the organization that certified the Calvert County Public School staff in Non-violent Crisis Intervention). In the May 2016 document, the school wrote “The IEP team would not agree to not using CPI because schools are required to use CPI when a student is at danger of injuring themselves or others.” (NOTE: This is again a different standard being cited by CCPS than the imminent, serious physical harm standard prescribed in COMAR and MSDE guidance documents.)

The IEP team would not agree to not using CPI because schools are required to use CPI when a student is at danger of injuring themselves or others

Calvert Country School IEP team

The documents “NC” provided Waller Squared show that the child was continually restrained and transported to the seclusion room on numerous occasions. At six-years-old, he was restrained and secluded for “playing with light switches” in a hallway and because he “began to knock over chairs.”  He was again physically restrained and transported to the seclusion room for not cleaning up after himself when break time ended.  The teacher’s written report indicates that a one minute timer was set when the child was told to clean up the toys.  After one minute, when the child began to throw toy blocks around the classroom, he was restrained and then secluded, for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes. 

“NC” continued to try to work with Calvert County Public School (CCPS) staff to address the frequency of seclusion the child endured. In an April of 2017 email to Christina Harris (CCPS Special Education Director), “NC” wrote: “As you may or may not be aware – after multiple notifications both written and verbal to Calvert Country that I DO NOT consent for the child being placed in Seclusion or Restraint – they continue to do so on what has increased to multiple times on a daily basis.”

As you may or may not be aware – after multiple notifications both written and verbal to Calvert Country that I DO NOT consent for “child G” being placed in Seclusion or Restraint – they continue to do so on what has increased to multiple times on a daily basis.”

Letter from parent “NC” to the CCPS Director of Special Education

In December of 2017, the child’s Individual Education Plan was updated. The plan provided the following: “’The child continues to require a Behavior Intervention plan that addresses behaviors that interfere with his and other student’s ability to access the curriculum.” The plan also noted, “If the child poses a potential danger to himself of others, CPI certified staff may use Nonviolent Physical Crisis Intervention (NPCI) and/or seclusionary time out.”

Ultimately, “NC” removed the child from Calvert County Public Schools because of what she perceived as an overuse of restraint and seclusion. 

In Maryland, there are presently two different standards for when seclusion or restraint can be practiced on a student. In our previous reporting on the issue, we focused on the provisions in COMAR which dictate that restraint and seclusion can only be practiced to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm [emphasis added]. This standard does not apply once seclusion or restraint is included in a child’s IEP. Once in the IEP, seclusion and restraint are no longer reserved for acts that pose a risk of serious bodily harm, so the practices may then be used to address lesser behaviors; nonetheless, the State regulations establish certain requirements.

Among those requirements, the IEP must identify the specific behaviors for which seclusion or restraint is permitted to be practiced. On November 26, 2013, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services (DSE/EIS), completed an investigation of a complaint regarding special education services in Frederick County. The complaint involved a student who had seclusion and restraint included in his IEP. (Case #14-026). In that case, MSDE found that Frederick County violated State regulations in its practice. The investigative report reads, “The IEP and BIP in effect since August 15, 2013 state that ‘crisis intervention’ services are to be used when the student ‘becomes a danger to himself or others,’ including the ‘use of exclusion, seclusion, and physical restraint.’ While the document states that the interventions will be used when the student becomes a danger to himself or others, it does not describe the specific behaviors or circumstances which would constitute such a danger.”

The provision of seclusion and restraint in “NC’s” child’s IEP is remarkably similar to that of the child who was the subject of the complaint in Frederick County. It read, “If the child poses a potential danger to himself or others, CPI certified staff may use Nonviolent Physical Crisis Intervention (NPCI) and/or seclusionary time out.” It too did not describe the specific behaviors or circumstances which would constitute such a danger. Though for over a year “NC” attempted to address this very issue with the child’s IEP team, the CCPS Behavior Specialist, the Calvert Country School principal, the CCPS Director of Special Education and a representative of the Maryland State Department of Education, she received no relief and the child was continually restrained and secluded.

This particular issue, however, was not lost on the Maryland State Task Force on Restraint & Seclusion. The 2017 report of the Task Force provided the following: “The most significant recommendation of the Task Force involves the circumstances in which restraint and seclusion shall be prohibited. There was agreement that restraint and seclusion are crisis-oriented responses, but also concern that such responses may be used in lieu of less intrusive interventions once added to a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or individualized education program (IEP). To avoid that result in the BIP or IEP, the Task Force recommends revising the regulation so that physical restraint and seclusion are prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools unless there is an emergency situation and such responses are necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.

There was agreement that restraint and seclusion are crisis-oriented responses, but also concern that such responses may be used in lieu of less intrusive interventions once added to a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or individualized education program (IEP)

Maryland State Task Force on Restraint & Seclusion 2017 Report

On September 19, 2017, the Task Force was poised to present this recommendation to the Maryland State Board of Education; however, State Superintendent Karen Salmon had a different idea. According to the meeting minutes, “Before introducing the presenters, State Superintendent Salmon expressed her appreciation to the Task Force for their work. She also (sic) that she does not agree with all of the recommendations outlined in the report and expressed specific concerns about removing anything from a students Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is prescriptive, based on her experiences and observations as an educator. Dr. Salmon emphasized the need for further discussion before any final actions are taken on the committee’s recommendation(s).” The Board ultimately did not adopt the Task Force recommendations that Dr. Salmon opposed.

Waller Squared Media Productions requested a comment from Superintendent Salmon on this issue; however, we received no response to our request for comment. We also have been unable to determine what action, if any, the Maryland State Department of Education took in 2016, when “NC” brought this very issue to the attention of MSDE employee Marjorie Shulbank. We are attempting to quantify the number of students in the CCPS Special Education program who may have been subjected to the misapplication of seclusion and restraint practices since this issue was brought to the attention of the Maryland State Department of Education in 2016.

In January of this year U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the U.S. Department of Education will launch an initiative to address the possible inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion in our nation’s schools.  Waller Squared has reached out to the U.S. Department of Education – Office of Civil Rights for a comment on this issue in Calvert County and the State of Maryland; however, we have not yet received a response to our request for an interview.

Since Calvert County Public Schools, in several of it’s correspondence with “NC”, cited the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) to justify the practice of restraint and seclusion, we contacted CPI for comment.

Marvin Mason, Chief Customer Officer at CPI, wrote in an email to Waller Squared Media Productions, “CPI does not promote or endorse the use of seclusion rooms in schools, because the lasting psycho social/emotional impact it has on children can be profound. In fact, CPI has helped fund lobbying efforts for legislation in Florida to ban the practice of seclusion rooms in Florida schools.

CPI does not promote or endorse the use of seclusion rooms in schools, because the lasting psycho social/emotional impact it has on children can be profound. In fact, CPI has helped fund lobbying efforts for legislation in Florida to ban the practice of seclusion rooms in Florida schools.

Marvin Mason, Chief Customer Officer at Crisis Prevention Institute

Mason also provide several CPI position statement documents pertaining to seclusion and restraint. Among other things, the documents noted “CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program utilizes the standard of last resort as the only appropriate time to use restraint or seclusion. Last resort comes about when the student’s behavior creates imminent danger to self or others, and the danger of the behavior outweighs the risks associated with using restraint and seclusion.  Because the risks associated with restraint and seclusion use are so great, any episode of restraint or seclusion should be ended at the earliest possible moment when the student is no longer an imminent danger to self or others. The student may still be upset or noncompliant, but if the student is no longer dangerous, the restraint/seclusion should end. Restraint should be used to protect, not to punish, and should never be used for staff convenience.”

The Crisis Prevention Institute’s description of restraint is not one of a risk-free practice. It is not consistent with the description that the Calvert Country School principal provided in the letter to “NC”; namely, “safe, non-harmful restraint and transport positions.” In fact, CPI’s guidance documentation instructs personnel to consider the following risks associated with the practice of restraint:

  • Psychosocial Injury, including posttraumatic stress disorder and damage to therapeutic relationships. 
  • Soft-Tissue Injury, including injury to skin, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. 
  • Articular or Bony Injury, including injury to joints and bones. 
  • Respiratory Restriction, including compromise to airway, bellows mechanism, and gaseous exchange, which results in respiratory crisis or failure. 
  • Cardiovascular Compromise, including compromise to the heart and the peripheral vascular system. 

We asked CCPS Superintendent Daniel Curry to comment on the issues “NC” faced in working with school personnel, as well as the information we received from CPI. Dr. Curry declined to comment, but did note that the principal who sent “NC” the letter is no longer employed in the school system. We received a similar response from Dr. Curry when we questioned why CCPS written policy on the practice of seclusion had changed over the years, becoming seemingly less restrictive. Dr. Curry noted that the people responsible for those policy changes are no longer employed with CCPS.

Dr. Curry previously told us that he questioned what the seclusion rooms were for when he first started employment in Calvert County, because he previously worked in school districts that didn’t have any sort of seclusion room.  We have requested twice that Dr. Curry provide a response to the following question: “When you learned of them [the seclusion rooms], given the seriousness of the issues surrounding there use, what leadership did you provide in managing the practice?” Dr. Curry has yet to respond to this question.

Dawn Balinski, President of the Calvert County Board of Education, offered the following statement: “The usage of restraint and seclusion is under investigation in our school system with the intent to reduce and, where possible, to eliminate the practice.   The Superintendent has convened a committee of involved stakeholders to develop recommendations to Board of Education policy and to shape changes to CCPS procedures related to restraint and seclusion.   The Board of Education welcomes all public input as we work through this issue.” 

The usage of restraint and seclusion is under investigation in our school system with the intent to reduce and, where possible, to eliminate the practice.   The Superintendent has convened a committee of involved stakeholders to develop recommendations to Board of Education policy and to shape changes to CCPS procedures related to restraint and seclusion.   The Board of Education welcomes all public input as we work through this issue.

Dawn Balinski, President of the Calvert County Board of Education

Our investigative reporting on this issue will continue. We have interviewed other parents, representatives of the Calvert Educators Association and other individuals with information to contribute to this story. We have also received a number of additional documents. All of the information garnered will be the subject of our next article.


About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention & Mental Health First Aid instructor, and criminal investigator, – now turned public interest journalist. He manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com

Calvert County Public Schools: Who knew what, and when?

Calvert County Public Schools seclusion incidents compared to all other Maryland counties.

The federal definition of seclusion is “the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. It does not include a timeout,[emphasis added] which is a behavior management technique that is part of an approved program, involves the monitored separation of the student in a non-locked setting, and is implemented for the purpose of calming.”

Maryland regulations provides that “the use of seclusion is prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools until there is an emergency situation and seclusion is necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after other less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.”

We have previously reported on what guidance the State has provided school districts regarding the meaning of “imminent, serious, physical harm.”  On January 14th, 2014, the Maryland State Department of Education – Division of Special Education / Early Intervention Services issued the “The Use of Restraint and Seclusion” Fact Sheet to help guide Maryland schools with policy development. This guidance document emphasizes the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard for the practice of restraint or seclusion, and it further defines exactly what is required before a school can act to restrain or seclude a child; namely: a substantial risk of death; extreme physical pain; protracted and obvious disfigurement; or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.  In so many words, there must be immediate risk to life and limb. (note: a lesser standard can be practiced with parental consent and with inclusion in the child’s IEP/BIP; otherwise, the standard stands.)

Our investigation and recent reporting has revealed a Calvert County policy on the practice of seclusion that does not align with Maryland regulations; it does not require the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard.  We cited a number of examples of special education children being subjected to seclusion and restraint for reported behaviors that do not seem to rise to the risk of imminent, serious, physical harm.  It appears that Calvert’s policy first diverged from the requirements of Maryland regulations in 2011.

The Superintendent of Calvert County Public Schools, Dr. Daniel Curry, stated that he did not become aware of this issue until our recent reporting on the matter.  Dr. Curry also noted that he arrived at his position in Calvert County in 2014, and whoever was responsible for authoring the 2011 policy is no longer in the same employment capacity.  

Nonetheless, we have received a number of documents showing that parents of special education students in Calvert County Public Schools have raised concerns about the County’s practice since as early as 2016, two years after Dr. Curry took office.  Dr. Curry reported that when he began his job in Calvert County in 2014, he had to ask about the purpose of the seclusion rooms, because he had previously worked in school districts that did not have any such rooms.

While Waller Squared Media Productions awaits receipt of additional documents from Calvert County & the State Department of Education, and in advance of our next article, we share you with a few excerpts from the many correspondence to and from a concerned parent and local and State school administration.  To protect the child’s privacy, his name has been changed in the emails to “John Doe.”

2016: Email excerpt, sent from the parent of a special needs elementary student in the Calvert County Public Schools to an employee of the Maryland Department of Education’s Special Education and Early Intervention Services Division.  Note the parent’s question about Calvert’s determination of imminent harm:

“I have inquired about the specific criteria they [Calvert County Public Schools] use in regards to determining if John Doe is an imminent harm to himself or others, which they use to determine appropriateness of the use of restraint and or seclusion. I have not been provided with any information other than COMAR constantly being repeatedly cited.”

2016: Email excerpt, sent from the parent of a special needs elementary student in Calvert County Public Schools to the school system’s supervisor of Special Education:

“As you may or may not be aware – after multiple notifications both written and verbal to Calvert Country that I DO NOT consent for John Doe being placed in Seclusion or Restraint – they continue to do so on what has increased to multiple times on a daily basis.  So I asked that the school call to notify me WHEN they decide to do so – however, they refuse and constantly site that COMAR [Maryland regulations] says they do not need parental consent and that they are “too short staffed” to immediately notify me – of what is classified by COMAR as an emergency situation – and that COMAR says they have 24 hours to notify me.”

2016: Email excerpt, sent from the principal of a Calvert County Public School to the parent of a special education student.  This email was sent in reply to the parent informing the school that she did not consent to her child being placed in seclusion.  Note that the principal’s claim to the parent, of what is provided in COMAR, was not complete and accurate:

“In accordance with Section 13A.08.04.05B of the Education Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, seclusionary time out is utilized in an emergency situation in which it is necessary to protect a student or other students. Restraint, transport, and seclusionary time-out are only used as a last resort and until the student can regain control of his or her own behavior.”

2016: Email excerpt, sent from the principal of a Calvert County Public School to the parent of a special education student.  The parent had notified the school that they did not give permission for the child to be secluded.  Note that the principal informed the parent that seclusion is required to “eliminate or reduce any chance of injury”, which is again a diversion from COMAR regulations:

“When it is necessary to protect a student or another person and less intrusive interventions have not been effective, staff are required to respond immediately to the situation in order to eliminate or reduce any chance of injury to the student or other students or staff. In these types of situations, parental permission is not required.”

Tell us what you think.

Superintendent Daniel Curry Responds – Part II: Questions Remain

Ratio of seclusion incidents to student enrollment.
Calvert County is the highest in the State by a wide margin.

Today, Calvert County Public Schools responded to one of the four requests for documents we made under the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act. We had requested and were provided with all previous versions of the “Student Behavior Interventions” policy, which includes their “seclusion” policy.

We have reviewed the 41 pages of documents we were provided, and our findings raise more questions than answers.

11/1/06 version of the seclusion policy:

School personnel will not use physical seclusion except in an emergency situation to protect a student or other person from imminent serious physical harm after other less intrusive intervention have failed or been determined inappropriate.”

The 2006 version of the seclusion policy was consistent with Maryland State regulations; namely, it required the risk of “imminent serious physical harm” before seclusion could be practiced. But, something happened between 2006 and 2011, because even though Maryland law did not change, the policy was changed in a significant way.

6/6/11 version of the seclusion policy:

The use of seclusion is prohibited in public agencies, unless: There is an emergency situation and seclusion is necessary to ensure safety.

The 2011 revision to the policy removed the State mandated “imminent, serious physical harm” standard. This resulted in Calvert County Public Schools establishing a seclusion practice no longer in alignment with Maryland law. Instead of requiring the high threshold of “imminent serious physical harm”, Calvert now permitted the practice of seclusion “to ensure safety.” Calvert’s written policy provides no definition or guidance for the meaning of “to ensure safety.” Calvert did not stop its policy revisions there, as things became seemingly further watered down in 2013.

6/14/13 version of the policy:

School personnel may use seclusion when: There is an emergency situation in order to protect the student or another person after less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined to be inappropriate”

The 2013 revision no longer required that it be necessary to “ensure safety” before seclusion could be practiced. The new standard in Calvert County became “to protect the student or another person.” Again, the policy provides no guidance or definitions to inform Calvert County Public School staff on the term “to protect.”

9/8/17 version of the policy:

The 2017 version of the seclusion policy remained unchanged from the 2013 version. Something else that remained unchanged, – the Maryland State regulations (COMAR).

Our own legal research, and the guidance we were provided by the attorneys with whom we consulted for this article, reveals that the State regulations regarding this specific standard have remained unchanged since 2003. The requirement has always been, and remains the case to this day, that “the use of seclusion is prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools until there is an emergency situation and seclusion is necessary “to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after other less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate” (COMAR 13A.08.04.05). (Note: This is the standard for when there is “an emergency.” The practice of seclusion can legally occur for lesser behaviors when it is a provision of a student’s IEP or BIP.)

In conclusion, it is our finding that the law did not change, thereby rendering Calvert’s policy out-of-date. Instead, Calvert County Public Schools repeatedly revised their own policy, thereby rendering it out-of-compliance with Maryland law.

Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC investigative findings

And what did Superintendent Daniel Curry tell us about the policy, how it came to be in non-compliance, and other related assertions? Hear for yourself:

Dr. Daniel Curry talks about Calvert’s policy on seclusion.

We asked for Dr. Curry and the Board to clarify what he told us, because we are not sure that his claims fit with the policy changes we described above.  Dr. Curry had suggested in the interview that there had been a subtle change in the law, and that staff didn’t update the policy to reflect the change, word for word.  He noted that Calvert County Public Schools has 100’s of policies to maintain, and “Occasionally, something might slip up.”  When we emailed him for clarification, this was his reply:

“There is no staff member who works for CCPS in this area of responsibility today who would have had responsibility for this language in 2003. Standard procedure for such matters comes from state leaders in special education who meet regularly with school district special education and student services leaders and get advised of updates in state board policy and COMAR. All of our policies and procedures are on cycles of review and revision. You can see that Policy 3215 was first adopted in 2004 and revised in 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2017. Our procedures to go with 3215 are dated 2006, 2011, 2013 and 2017. How did I learn of the difference in COMAR and our procedures? Your inquiry drew our attention to it. My staff looked into it and acknowledged that we need to update.”

How did I learn of the difference in COMAR and our procedures? Your inquiry drew our attention to it. My staff looked into it and acknowledged that we need to update.

Superintendent Curry explaining, in 2019, how he came to learn from Waller Squared’s reporting that Calvert County’s policy on seclusion has not been aligned with COMAR since 2011.

We sought further clarification of this answer, writing to Dr. Curry “So let me make sure I understand your answer. You wrote “Standard procedure for such matters comes from state leaders in special education who meet regularly with school district special education and student services leaders and get advised of updates in state board policy and COMAR.” Is it your position that the revisions to the seclusion policy, cited above, came from “state leaders in special education?”

In a subsequent email to us, Dr Curry wrote: “I arrived here in July 2014. The leaders who may have been responsible for such language in those years were gone when I got here. We are focused on making sure our staff make immediate adjustments as well as making sure we do an appropriate revision of policy and procedures.”

Dr. Curry also wrote, “As for responsibility of state leaders in special education, I do not know. I would ask you if the state staff has shared with you the guidance they have provided to counties regarding this matter. More specifically, how they define “eminent (sic) serious physical harm”.”

We have previously reported on what guidance the State has provided school districts regarding the term: On January 14th, 2014, the Maryland State Department of Education – Division of Special Education / Early Intervention Services issued the “The Use of Restraint and Seclusion” Fact Sheet to help guide Maryland schools with policy development. This guidance document emphasizes the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard for the practice of restraint or seclusion, and it further defines exactly what is required before a school can act to restrain or seclude a child; namely:

  1. a substantial risk of death;
  2. extreme physical pain;
  3. protracted and obvious disfigurement; or
  4. protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

We explained this to Dr. Curry during our interview, an audio recorded excerpt of which is available for review on this article.  His responses to us suggested that he may not have been familiar with the regulations and State guidance on the issue of seclusion. 

We also previously reported that in September of 2012, the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, published “Technical Assistance Bulletin 18” on the use of exclusion, restraint and seclusion. This document, intended to provide guidance to Maryland schools on the practice of seclusion and restraint, appears to have misquoted the Code of Maryland Administrative Regulations (COMAR). In this technical assistance bulletin, the Maryland State Department of Education instructs that seclusion may be practiced “In an emergency situation in order to protect the student or another person after other less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined to be inappropriate.”

This is the same exact language as is found in Calvert County Public School’s policy from 2013 onward.  It too is missing the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard that is included in and mandated by State regulations. Could it be that Calvert County has unlawfully physically restrained and forcefully secluded special education children because that is exactly what the Maryland State Department of Education had guided them to do in 2012?   We hope to be able to answer that question when we receive a response from the State Department of Education.

Lastly, in his email to Waller Squared, Dr. Curry added, “With regard to my statement, I was working from an assumption that it had changed in recent times and we did not change. I did not know it was 2003.”

I was working from an assumption that it had changed in recent times and we did not change. I did not know it was 2003.

Dr. Daniel Curry explaining why he claimed in an interview with Waller Squared that COMAR had changed and Calvert’s policy was not updated to address a subtle change.

Waller Squared has also asked the Board to comment on a number of other potential policy issues we presented to them. We await their response to those questions before we present our next article in the series: The Hell Rooms of Calvert County Public Schools – Part IV: How did this happen?

We have sent correspondence to the Maryland State Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education (Office of Civil Rights), and Governor Hogan’s Office for Children – Office of  Education Accountability for comment.  We await their statements on this issue.

Tell us what you think…………………

About the author: About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention & mental health first aid instructor, and criminal investigator, – now turned public interest journalist. He manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com

Brian Waller is a member of the U.S. Press Association as well as the Constitution First Amendment Press Association.

Calvert County is in fact #1

A correction was made to the seclusion chart we provided in article two of the series, which reported incorrect data for Talbot County.  A data entry error in the spreadsheet used for the calculations lead to our inaccurate reporting.  Talbot in fact had 0 seclusions, which changes Calvert County to number one in the practice of seclusion in the State.

We apologize for any concerns or issues our original reporting caused for the Talbot County Public School system and those who are associated with the school system.  We know of no indication showing that Talbot County is not actually managing student behavior interventions correctly.  We have no information to suggest that Talbot County is not in compliance with State regulations and guidance.

We have reached out to SMNEWSNET, which published our original article, asking that they retract the original article and publish our correction.

Superintendent Daniel Curry Responds: Hell Rooms Of Calvert County Public Schools – Part III


Image of Superintendent Daniel Curry (courtesy CCPC website)

Superintendent Daniel Curry said he first learned of Calvert County’s statistics on the use of restraint and seclusion approximately one month ago.  “Well, my initial thought is that, that’s not good.  And we’ve obviously got some work to do.”  

Curry added, “We have a wide range of responsibility here and we take it seriously, and we certainly do take seriously reports such as this that shows us in a ranking that we don’t like being in.”

In a March 21st email, Calvert County Public Schools Board of Education President Dawn Balinski wrote, “I was shocked to see the high number of incidences in Calvert and have asked the Superintendent to investigate and report back to the Board.” 

Curry confirmed that the investigation is underway.  “First of all, we’ve been digging into the data ourselves, looking at just how we are reporting what’s being recorded. . . I do want to say that I’ve been advised by staff that they have discovered that for some things we report, that other school districts tell us that they don’t… not that that is all of the issue.  We’ve got things to deal with”, said Curry.

In Waller Squared’s previous reporting, we compared Calvert County’s policy to what is written in Maryland regulations, and noted that Calvert’s policy seemed to permit the practice of seclusion for student behaviors that don’t rise to the level of “imminent, serious, physical harm”, as required by State regulations.  

According to Leslie Margolis, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, the State regulations (COMAR) do not define “imminent, serious physical harm.”  She wrote in an email to us,  “The Maryland State Department of Education explained in its 2014 fact sheet regarding restraint and seclusion that the term has the same meaning as serious bodily injury in federal law and regulation.  The fact sheet is guidance and does not have the force of statute or regulation, but it does represent the agency’s interpretation of its governing statute and regulations.” 

Margolis could not comment on the Calvert County Public Schools’ policy specifically, as she has not reviewed the entire policy and other guidance documents and procedures the school system may have in place.   

The Maryland State Department of Education’s factsheet indicates that, unless otherwise provided for in a student’s behavior intervention plan, restraint and seclusion are prohibited unless there is: 

  1. a substantial risk of death;
  2. extreme physical pain;
  3. protracted and obvious disfigurement; or
  4. protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

We asked Curry if he had reviewed Calvert County’s policy since Waller Squared’s first reporting on this issue. “I haven’t really myself, but my staff tells me they agree that our language doesn’t match up to what today’s language is supposed to be, so we’ll be changing our policy”, Curry told us.

[M]y staff tells me they agree that our language doesn’t match up to what today’s language is supposed to be, so we’ll be changing our policy

Calvert County Public School Superintendent Daniel Curry

Curry volunteered that the investigation has revealed instances whereby the school documented a restraint incident, when it isn’t even clear that the situation was one that required reporting.  

“A student might just be uncooperative and walking to the office and might just flop down on the floor and say ‘I’m not going’ and it might be where the school cafeteria is about to release a whole bunch of kids in the hallway, – my understanding is that sometimes students like that are transported with proper techniques to get them just out of the way of the traffic, and it’s not a matter of where they’re flailing about or resisting, except by just becoming a big pile of not helping, not walking. It’s not about someone getting hurt.  It’s just about getting out of the way of traffic . . .My understanding is, we’ve learned from other school systems that they don’t record that as a restraint.”

Curry also volunteered that the review has found reports that show the correct and appropriate practice of restraint and seclusion by Calvert County Public School personnel.  

Curry didn’t offer in his initial explanation whether or not the investigation has revealed  any questionable reports, where staff may have overreached with the application of restraint or seclusion; so, we asked him directly.  He replied, “Yeah, I think we have.  I think we’re questioning, anyway.  It may not be clear in the documentation submitted by the school, but the numbers cause us to question, was that necessary?”

It may not be clear in the documentation submitted by the school, but the numbers cause us to question, was that necessary?

Calvert County Public School Superintendent Daniel Curry

We asked Curry about the significance of not having the “imminent serious physical harm” standard in Calvert’s policy; namely, we asked if the investigation found instances of children being secluded or restrained for actions or behaviors that did not rise to the level of “imminent, serious physical harm” as described in COMAR?   Curry said, “I can’t speak to that much detail because I haven’t done that kind of review, but my staff is involved in that kind of review.  You know, the bottom line is that we want to comply, and we want to be sure we do it right.  So if there are any instances where we have, where we see patterns, where we have not followed the appropriate standard, we will fix that.”

Curry also told us, “The fact that our written procedures and our written policies may not match up word for word with what current law says, does not necessarily evidence that we have violated the law, because in the end it is what did the school do, was the school prudent in its exercise of these resolutions, or was it not? Did they do it properly or did they do it not, not properly?  Not what was in writing, but what was executed.”

We subsequently asked Leslie Margolis, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, to comment on Superintendent Curry’s position with respect to Calvert’s written policy. Margolis could not offer a comment about Calvert County’s policy specifically, because she is not familiar with it in its entirety. “I will say in general, there are two possibilities if a jurisdiction’s written policies do not reflect what is required by law.  One possibility is that the jurisdiction actually does comply with all legal requirements but just has not gone through the process of conforming its policies to actual practice and to the legal requirements that govern.  The other possibility is that the jurisdiction does not comply with all legal requirements and perhaps views the policy as interchangeable with or as a substitute for the law”, Margolis advised.

Several different parents have provided Waller Squared with the signed reports various school personnel completed to record instances of seclusion and restraint. Parents have provided us with school records dating back to 2016. These documents reveal that since at least 2016, Calvert County Public School special education students have apparently been restrained and secluded for behaviors including splashing water at staff, toggling light switches, tipping over chairs, damaging window insect screens, and similar non-injurious acts.

Curry said, “All things aside, we acknowledge that we’ve got to do some training for our staff because transport, seclusion, restraint, – those are all reactionary responses to a behavior that we would rather have prevented.”  

He further noted, “I’d like to think that it’s possible for us to improve our knowledge and understanding of what can be done so you have fewer instances where you feel you need to restrain or where you need to seclude. What are the buttons that we don’t want to push for a particular student that might set them off and cause these kinds of things to happen.”

All things aside, we acknowledge that we’ve got to do some training for our staff because transport, seclusion, restraint, – those are all reactionary responses to a behavior that we would rather have prevented

Calvert County Public School Superintendent Daniel Curry

Superintendent Curry told of the first time he learned of the practice of seclusion. “When I first arrived here in Calvert County, I had to ask what some of these spaces were for, because I worked in school districts that didn’t have any kind of space that could be even used for seclusion.  If you don’t have a space set aside for that, it’s a tool that you don’t have in your tool kit, and you find other solutions.” Curry did not indicate what, if any, direction he provided to school system personnel after he first observed these rooms and learned of the practice of seclusion in Calvert County.

Curry added, “I want to reemphasize that a big part of our training that we’ve got to get better at is, what kinds of things can we do for our staff to make it so they don’t even have to consider, or they reduce the number of times that they would even need to consider, [seclusion or restraint].”

If you don’t have a space set aside for that, it’s a tool that you don’t have in your tool kit, and you find other solutions

Calvert County Public School Superintendent Daniel Curry

Curry also explained that this issue is not a simple issue to address, nor is it one dimensional.  “We have to acknowledge that here is the other big issue. We have had at numerous Board meetings, and I have received frequent communications, from both teachers and parents, asking why are these children with violent tendencies in my room.  And I’m concerned about the safety of my other children… parents tell me…why is this child here?  My child reported that another child in his classroom threw something across the room, threw a chair, threw a desk… and those numbers are increasing, more and more.  We have very young children, ages 5, 6, 7, 8, who have challenges, not necessarily yet into special education… perhaps, but have challenges with emotional control, and don’t deal with adversity or disappointment in effective ways, so we have more and more tantrums, more and more physical acting out.  And we have staff getting hurt, and we have parents calling us and asking us why is that child taking away from my child’s education. So, we have to address the issues of seclusion and restraint . . . we will certainly want to reduce the frequency with which we have to use those kinds of tools.  We have to balance out the needs of the few for the needs of the many and try to meet everyone’s needs while keeping everyone safe.”

I have received frequent communications, from both teachers and parents, asking why are these children with violent tendencies in my room

Calvert County Public School Superintendent Daniel Curry

In the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a separate education for African-American children was not an equal education. Subsequent court holdings and federal legislation have established similar equal education access rights to students with disabilites.

The U.S. Department of Education website explains that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that requires public schools to provide a free and “appropriate” education to eligible children with disabilities.  The law also ensures special education and related services to those children.

According to the American Psychological Association’s website, “Prior to IDEA, over 4 million children with disabilities were denied appropriate access to public education. Many children were denied entry into public school altogether, while others were placed in segregated classrooms, or in regular classrooms without adequate support for their special needs.”

WrightsLaw is an organization which publishes information about special education law, education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities.  According to the information published on their website, IDEA requires “school districts to place students in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their nondisabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled, unless a student’s individualized education program (IEP) requires some other arrangement.”

[T]o the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports…

WrightsLaw

What’s next?

Our investigative reporting on this issue will continue.  We are still awaiting a response from Calvert County Public Schools on our request to inspect records pursuant to the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act.  

Though our reporting thus far has mainly focused on Calvert’s seclusion policy and the lack of the “imminent, serious physical harm” standard, our next article will cover issues we have discovered that may point to a broader and more systemic failure in the management and internal accounting of student behavior interventions in the Calvert County Public School System.

About the author: About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention & mental health first aid instructor, and criminal investigator, – now turned public interest journalist. He manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com

Brian Waller is a member of the U.S. Press Association as well as the Constitution First Amendment Press Association.

Do you have a story?

Since writing our first article on the practice of seclusion & restraint in Calvert County Public Schools, we have learned of other families with similar experiences. We will be investigating their claims and publishing our findings.

Do you have a story to tell?

Was your family effected by the improper use of seclusion and restraint in a Maryland school?

Contact brian@wallersquaredmedia.com for an interview.

The Hell Rooms of Calvert County Public Schools: Part II

A Calvert County special education school bus

READ PART I OF THIS SERIES

(UPDATED APRIL 3, 2019 AT 8:06 AM)
A correction was made to the seclusion chart, which reported incorrect data for Talbot County. Talbot in fact had 0 seclusions, which changes Calvert County to number one in seclusion.

“I did not know that we had a problem and now I do”, wrote Ms. Dawn Balinski, President of the Calvert County Board of Education.  “If it is confirmed that we over-restrain/over-use seclusion in CCPS, then we will fix it.”  

Ms. Balinski offered these words in a March 14, 2019 email to Guy Stephens, the father of a Calvert County Middle School student who is presently receiving “home & hospital instruction.” The Stephens story was first featured in Waller Squared Media Productions initial reporting on the issue of seclusion and restraint in Calvert County Public Schools.  Mr. Stephens son, Cooper, has been unable to return to school due to trauma he experienced from incidents of seclusion and restraint, which allegedly occurred during his first fourteen days at Calvert Middle School.

I did not know that we had a problem and now I do”, wrote Ms. Dawn Balinski, President of the Calvert County Board of Education.

Waller Squared Media Productions investigation into this matter has revealed that the Stephens experience is not a unique or isolated experience in Calvert County, or other Maryland counties for that matter.  The publication of our first article has resulted in a number of families from Southern Maryland (and beyond) contacting us and providing similar accounts.

Waller Squared has asked parents to provide documents or other evidence to support their allegations before we will report on their stories. We are presently reviewing hundreds of documents to further our investigative reporting on the practice of seclusion and restraint in Calvert County Public Schools.

Waller Squared has asked parents to provide documents or other evidence to support their allegations before we will report on their stories.

One parent of a former Calvert Country School student contacted Waller Squared and has already provided documentation of two restraint and seclusion reports school staff completed on her son, a special education student with disabilities.  She has identified herself to Waller Squared, but has asked to not be publicly identified in this story. She alleges that the documents she has provided are only a couple examples of the frequent incidents of seclusion and restraint that she can prove her son experienced. Our investigation into her allegations is ongoing.

Waller Squared Media Productions investigation into this matter has revealed that the Stephens experience is not a unique or isolated experience in Calvert County, or other Maryland Counties for that matter. 

The documents already in our possession indicate that on one day, from 8:45 AM until 9:48 AM, the child who was 6-years-old at the time, was physically restrained and transported to the seclusion room for “playing with light switches” in a hallway and because he “began to knock over chairs.”  Later that very same day, from 12:05 PM until 1:20 PM, this child was again physically restrained and transported to the seclusion room for not cleaning up after himself when break time ended.  

The teacher’s report indicates that a one minute timer was set when the child was told to clean up the toys.  After one minute, when the child continued to throw toy blocks around the classroom, he was restrained and then secluded, for 1 hour and 15 minutes. 

Like other families reporting to us, this parent removed her child from Calvert County Public Schools and began homeschooling.

Later that very same day, from 12:05 PM until 1:20 PM, this child was again physically restrained and transported to the seclusion room for not cleaning up after himself when break time ended.

A March 13th report by WAMU on the practice of seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County, VA schools offered a description of seclusion rooms “that are built like Russian nesting dolls, rooms within a room.”  In many ways, this same description describes the oversight and management structure of the American education system.  The U.S. Department of Education establishes standards and provides guidance, which flows down to the State Departments of Education.  From the State level, guidance and direction is given to the various County Boards of Education, who in turn provide direction to their respective schools.  

On one hand, such a system can maximize resources and affords layers of oversight to assure that only the best practices are followed in our schools.  On the other hand, Waller Squared’s investigation into this matter has identified that the message passed from one layer to the next isn’t always clear or accurate.  

It is much like the grammar school exercise, where each child is instructed to repeat a message whispered in his ear.  The lesson learned is that sometimes things get lost in translation.  When the message is passed from one child to the next, it often arrives in the ear of the last child as a totally different message than that which was whispered by the first.  This lesson, intended for school children, may have subsequently become lost on our school educators.   

Our March 22ndreport on the practice of seclusion and restraint in Calvert County Public Schools brought to light a school system policy and practice that is not in line with Maryland law. Maryland law prohibits the restraint and forced seclusion of a student, unless the student’s actions pose a risk to life and limb.  Maryland law calls such a risk  “imminent, serious, physical harm.”  Calvert County’s policy allows staff to physically restrain students and force them into seclusion rooms for much lesser behaviors.  

Waller Squared Media Productions has obtained copies of several reports completed by staff at Calvert Middle School, revealing the practice of seclusion and restraint upon a special education student for “splashing water” and other similar behaviors, – behaviors that do not appear to place anyone at risk of “imminent, serious, physical harm.”

Parents with whom we have communicated believe that Calvert County’s policy on seclusion and restraint is the cause for such high reported numbers of the practice in the county, as compared to the rest of Maryland. A December 2018 report by the Maryland State Department of Education may support the parents’ position.

A graph created from the Maryland State Department of Education reported data showing the number of physical restraint incidents in the county as compared to total enrollment.
A graph created from the Maryland State Department of Education reported data showing the number of physical seclusion incidents in the county as compared to total enrollment.

Statistics from nationwide data indicate that children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the practices of restraint and seclusion. According to an article on Disability Scoop, “the vast majority of the estimated 122,000 students restrained or secluded at school had disabilities, the Education Department said. Children served under IDEA represented 71 percent of those restrained and 66 percent of kids subject to seclusion.”

We have submitted three separate requests to the Calvert County Public Schools, pursuant to the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act.  We have requested to inspect, among other documents, the school system’s records related to the adoption of a policy that does not comply with the restrictions established under State law, adhering to an “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard.  We also have an interview scheduled with Superintendent Dr. Daniel Curry.   

While we await the school systems response to our requests, our investigation continues.  Through this continued investigation, Waller Squared has uncovered a document, published by the Maryland State Department of Education, that may very well explain how Calvert County came to adopt a policy that violates State law.  And our discovery could have statewide ramifications.

Waller Squared has uncovered a document, published by the Maryland State Department of Education, that may very well explain how Calvert County came to adopt a policy that violates State law.

In September of 2012, the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, published “Technical Assistance Bulletin 18” on the use of exclusion, restraint and seclusion.  This document, intended to provide guidance to Maryland schools on the practice of seclusion and restraint, appears to have misquoted the Code of Maryland Administrative Regulations (COMAR).  In this technical assistance bulletin, the Maryland State Department of Education instructs that seclusion may be practiced “In an emergency situation in order to protect the student or another person after other less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined to be inappropriate.”  

This is the same exact language as is found in Calvert County Public School’s policy.  It too is missing the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard that is included in and mandated by State regulations.  Could it be that Calvert County has unlawfully physically restrained and forcefully secluded special education children because that is exactly what the Maryland State Department of Education had guided them to do in 2012?  We hope to be able to answer that question when we receive the records we have requested from the Calvert County Public School system.

Could it be that Calvert County has unlawfully physically restrained and forcefully secluded special education children because that is exactly what the Maryland State Department of Education had guided them to do in 2012?

Even if it is the case that Calvert County was acting on the 2012 guidance from the State, both the U.S. Department of Education and the Maryland State Department of Education have published numerous guidance documents on the issue since “Technical Assistance Bulletin 18” was published in 2012.

In fact, in January of this year U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the U.S. Department of Education will launch an initiative to address the possible inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion in our nation’s schools.

Calvert County updated its policy on seclusion and restraint in 2013 and again in 2017.  The school system missed those opportunities to recognize and remedy this error in the policy, an error that may account for the fact that Calvert is first in the State for the practice of seclusion.

A 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan congressional investigative agency, counted hundreds of cases of abuse, include at least 20 deaths related to the practice of seclusion and restraint in U.S. schools. In testimony before Congress, the GAO provided examples of cases they studied.

Just as the U.S. Department of Education has done, the State of Maryland has worked to ensure that students are not subjected to acts of restraint and seclusion unless appropriate and necessary. In September of 2017, the States Task Force on Restraint and Seclusion issued a report of recommendations.

The report reads: “The most significant recommendation of the Task Force involves the circumstances in which restraint and seclusion shall be prohibited. There was agreement that restraint and seclusion are crisis-oriented responses, but also concern that such responses may be used in lieu of less intrusive interventions once added to a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or individualized education program (IEP). To avoid that result in the BIP or IEP, the Task Force recommends revising the regulation so that physical restraint and seclusion are prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools unless there is an emergency situation and such responses are necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm [emphasis added] after less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.”

According to the Task Force report, “The Restraint and Seclusion Task Force was comprised of 29 members from Maryland public schools, nonpublic schools, and the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). The Task Force was co-chaired by Mary Gable, Assistant Superintendent of the Division of Student, Family, and School Support and Academic Policy and Deborah Nelson, Section Chief for School Safety and Climate and Specialist for School Psychological Services.”

Calvert County had a representative serve on the Task Force. He was one of just 29 experts who provided recommendations to the State on when seclusion and restraint should NOT be practiced. Waller Squared has obtained and reviewed the minutes of the multiple meetings of this Maryland State Taskforce. The requirement of imminent, serious, physical harm was addressed multiple times in the minutes, and in the final report.

Waller Squared Media Productions has obtained copies of a written report involving the very same Calvert County educator who served on this State Task Force, practicing seclusion and restraint upon a special education student at Calvert Middle School for behaviors that do not appear to rise to the level of “imminent, serious, physical harm.”

Waller Squared Media Productions has obtained copies of a written report involving the very same educator who served on this State Task Force, practicing seclusion and restraint upon a special education student at Calvert Middle School for behaviors that do not appear to rise to the level of “imminent, serious, physical harm.”

Our investigation and reporting will continue. In future articles, we will expand on other aspects of Calvert County Public Schools policies and procedures that are not aligned with Maryland regulations.

———————————————————-
Mr. Guy Stephens and Cooper have consented to being identified in this report.

About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention & mental health first aid instructor, and criminal investigator, – now turned public interest journalist. He manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com

The Hell rooms of Calvert County Public Schools Part I: Seclusion & Restraint

Cooper Stephens described the seclusion room as Hell like.

“Seclusion and restraint.” It probably isn’t a term with which most people are familiar. If the unfamiliar person were to wager a guess at just what exactly does “seclusion and restraint” mean, images of maximum security prisons or the interrogation of terrorism suspects might come to mind. Cooper Stephens is all too familiar with the term; yet, he isn’t an inmate or a terrorism suspect. Cooper is an unassuming 13-year-old special education student in the Calvert County Public School System. In two words, Cooper describes the seclusion room where he was held: “It’s hell.”

Media attention has recently focused on the issue of seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County, VA schools. According to a report on WAMU-FM, the school system failed to report hundreds of cases of seclusion and restraint to the federal government, and special needs children were traumatized by repeated acts of seclusions at the hands of school personnel.

Calvert County, MD, nestled on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, may not have a lot in common with Fairfax County, VA. But, when it comes to the school’s practice of seclusion and restrain on students with disabilities, things begin to look a lot alike.

The Code of Maryland Administrative Regulations (COMAR) defines restraint as “a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move the student’s torso, arms, legs, or head freely.” Seclusion is “the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” Together, these practices are known as “Student Behavior Interventions.”

Cooper and his father, Guy Stephens of Lusby, MD, allege that Cooper was subjected to both restraint and seclusion at Calvert County Middle School on a number of occasions during his first fourteen days of the 2018-2019 school year. The Stephens contend that the experience was so traumatic to Cooper, that after only three weeks of attendance at the school, he was unwilling to return. He is now receiving education through “Home & Hospital Instruction.”

Cooper was subjected to both restraint and seclusion at Calvert County Middle School on a number of occasions during his first fourteen days of the 2018-2019 school year.

Guy Stephens explained that Cooper had a positive experience in the Calvert County Public School system from first grade until the mid-year of fifth grade. Cooper, who started first grade in what is today called an “SLE” special education program, progressed remarkably well, particularly with the support of a favorite teacher with whom he was with for two and a half years. By the middle of fifth grade, Cooper was in regular “inclusion” classes for all but one subject. But, things took a turn for the worse when Cooper’s teacher was in an automobile accident and did not return to the classroom for the remainder of fifth grade. “Change is difficult for Cooper”, noted his father. “When he lost his primary support person at the school, there were a number of behavior issues.”

Mr. Stephens stated that things came to a head after Cooper experienced two incidents of being physically restrained by school personnel in fifth grade. On the last occasion, Cooper had left his classroom and was hiding in a school bathroom. While one school staff member coaxed Cooper out of the bathroom, another grabbed hold of him unexpectedly and physically forced him into a classroom. “This pushed Cooper from a 9 to a 20 on his scale of escalation.” Mr. Stephens was called to the school and found Cooper in the classroom, throwing items and ripping things up. Mr. Stephens asked the several school personnel present in the room to please step out. He spoke to Cooper and helped him to eventually calm down.

After much consideration and with Cooper’s input, The Stephens decided to homeschool Cooper for sixth and seventh grades. Near the end of seventh grade, Cooper began showing an interest in returning to public school. In contemplating Cooper’s return to Calvert County Schools, Mr. Stephens stated, “physical contact was a huge concern for us.” 

Mr. Stephens notes that Cooper is on the autism spectrum, is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and an anxiety disorder. Mr. Stephens furnished copies of numerous correspondence he had with the staff of Calvert Middle School before the eighth grade school year had begun, demonstrating his efforts to inform Cooper’s teachers about his disabilities, develop an adequate Individualized Education Program (IEP), and convey ways for the teachers to best communicate with Cooper to prevent behavioral escalations. 

In a September 12, 2018 email Mr. Stephens sent the school, he wrote, “Do not touch or try to restrain him if he is very upset, this can make a bad situation worse.” Mr. Stephens believed he had done everything needed to make Cooper’s experience returning to Calvert County Public School a positive and successful one. Unfortunately, it was anything but positive and successful, as Mr. Stephens and Cooper allege that Cooper was physically restrained on numerous occasions. The first occurrence was on the third day of school.

Mr. Stephens does not believe that Calvert County’s seclusion and restraint policies are in alignment with Maryland state law. Maryland law mandates that “the use of seclusion is prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools until there is an emergency situation and seclusion is necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after other less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.” 

Mr. Stephens does not believe that Calvert County’s seclusion and restraint policies are in alignment with Maryland state law.

Calvert County Public Schools has adopted “Administrative Procedures for Policy #3215 (Students) Regarding Student Behavior Interventions”, which is published on the school system’s website. This document, last revised on September 8th, 2017, establishes a lesser standard for the practice of seclusion on students in Calvert County public schools than the standard required under Maryland law. 

Calvert County permits school personnel to practice seclusion when “there is an emergency situation in order to protect the student or another person after less intrusive interventions have failed or been determined to be inappropriate.” At first glance, this policy may look the same as what Maryland law requires; however, there is an important element missing from Calvert’s policy. COMAR dictates that seclusion can only be practiced to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm [emphasis added]. Those four little words carry great meaning.

On January 14th, 2014, the Maryland State Department of Education – Division of Special Education / Early Intervention Services issued the “The Use of Restraint and Seclusion” Fact Sheet to help guide Maryland schools with policy development. This guidance document emphasizes the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard for the practice of restraint or seclusion, and it further defines exactly what is required before a school can act to restrain or seclude a child; namely:

1. a substantial risk of death; 
2. extreme physical pain; 
3. protracted and obvious disfigurement; or 
4. protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

A review of policies from other Maryland county school systems, including Howard County and Anne Arundel County, reveal that their policies include the “imminent, serious, physical harm” standard as prescribed by Maryland law.

Mr. Stephens obtained copies of the documentation Calvert Middle School staff completed for two reported incidents of restraint and seclusion practiced on Cooper in September and October of 2018. The September report indicates that Cooper was placed in the seclusion room for hitting the school psychologist in the arm, hitting doors/walls and being verbally aggressive. In the October incident, the documentation indicates that Cooper was placed in the seclusion room for spitting, kicking, and hitting doors/walls. During the October incident, after Cooper was released, he was again placed in the seclusion room a short time later for throwing water on the staff.

Mr. Stephens has filed a complaint with the Calvert County Public School system. He does not believe that Cooper, even if he did spit, throw water and do the other reported behaviors, did anything that rises to the level of putting anyone at risk of imminent, serious, physical harm. Mr. Stephens’s complaint centers on Calvert County’s practice of seclusion and restraint in alleged violation of Maryland law, and he believes that the State of Maryland has published the statistics that support his position.

On December 1, 2018 the Maryland State Department of Education published a report titled “Restraint and Seclusion Data Collection, Findings, and Recommendations.” This report shows the number of restraint incidents and the number of seclusion incidents reported in each Maryland county during the 2017-2018 school year. Calvert County reported 701 incidents of seclusion and 576 incidents of restraint for the school year. Though only 14th in size in terms of total school enrollment, Calvert County was first in its percentage of seclusion incidents and second for restraint incidents in the State. Mr. Stephens believes Calvert County’s numbers are actually higher than reported, alleging that he believes Cooper was restrained and secluded six or seven times, though the school has only provided him with documentation of two incidents. “They’re doing it and they’re not reporting it”, Mr. Stephens alleges.

Though only 14th in size in terms of total school enrollment, Calvert County was first in its percentage of seclusion incidents and second for restraint incidents in the State.

Though burdened with his personal challenges, Cooper Stephens is nonetheless an astute child. Cooper has intently followed his father’s efforts to advocate for him and for other similarly situated students with disabilities. Cooper, while recently riding home with his father after attending a friend’s birthday party said, “I think I want to go back to school.” When Mr. Stephens talked with his son about this decision, Cooper added, “If I go, I want to take your cell phone. I want to record them. I want to show you what they did to me.”

“Seclusion and restraint.” It probably isn’t a term with which most people are familiar. Ms. Dawn Balinski, President of the Calvert County Board of Education, was contacted for a comment about this investigation. Her comment suggests that even she is not appropriately familiar. “Until last week, when a parent sent the [Maryland State Department of Education] report to me on ‘restraint and seclusion’ data by county, I had never even heard those words used in connection with our discipline procedures” Ms. Balinski wrote in an email to Waller Squared Media Productions.

According to guidance provided to schools by the U.S. Department of Education, “Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline…” (U.S. Department of Education, Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document, Washington, D.C., 2012.)

Though Ms. Balinski wasn’t previously aware of the issue, she is now concerned. She wrote, “I was shocked to see the high number of incidences in Calvert and have asked the Superintendent to investigate and report back to the Board.”

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Mr. Guy Stephens and Cooper have consented to being identified in this report.

An interview has been scheduled with Superintendent Daniel Curry. A request for records has been made to the Calvert County Public Schools pursuant to the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act. Additional investigative reporting to follow.

About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention & mental health first aid instructor, and criminal investigator, – now turned public interest journalist. He manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com