DUXBURY — A little more than a year after learning that its school district was using restraint and seclusion with students at an alarming rate, the Harwood Unified Union School District School Board has adopted a new policy that bans the practices starting in the fall.
The move means that the school district covering Waterbury, Duxbury, Moretown, Waitsfield, Fayston and Warren will have stricter guidelines in place than state policy allows when it comes to employees and contracted staff who need to manage challenging student behaviors.
The issue has been of high importance this school year after the district’s use of the practices was found to be particularly high among schools in Vermont. Former board member and Brookside Primary School special education teacher Brian Dalla Mura brought the matter to the attention of the board and administration in spring 2022. Dalla Mura, who now works in another school district, called attention to statistics showing reported incidents at what was then called Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury in the 2017-18 school year. He found that 289 reports were made based on data collected by federal education sources.
According to the state definitions, physical restraint means using physical force “to prevent an imminent and substantial risk of bodily harm to the student or others.” The focus of the Harwood district’s new policy is on prone and supine restraints. Prone physical restraint means holding a student face down on their stomach using physical force in order to control the student’s movement. Supine restraint means holding a student on their back using physical force for the same purpose.
Seclusion refers to confining a student “alone in a room or area from which the student is prevented or reasonably believes he or she will be prevented from leaving,” according to the state definition. This does not include a “time-out” situation where a student is not left alone and is under adult supervision, according to the state rules.
The issue came to light as the district’s administration was in transition. Superintendent Mike Leichliter started in his position last July 1. Leichliter moved to Vermont from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a superintendent in a system that bans the practices entirely. Vermont is among a minority of states that still allows the tactics to be used with children as young as preschoolers.
When the current school year opened last August, Harwood staff and contractors who work as support staff for special education were prohibited from using the restraining techniques and from using closed rooms for seclusion.
Administrators on Wednesday shared statistics with the board, saying that there have been 39 incidences of restraint — none using prone or supine methods — so far this year compared with 129 by this time last school year. Five restraints in the 2021-22 school year were prone restraints, Leichliter added.
Also this year, there have been no seclusions compared with 30 last year, officials said.
School administrators this year have worked on modifying district protocols, adding in new trainings, and a school board committee began drafting a new policy to address the issue.
A parallel process began at the State House this year led by Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood with the introduction of a bill that would look to ban restraint and seclusion statewide. Although state lawmakers took testimony, the legislation did not advance, and remains pending for the Legislature to take up in 2024.
In April, the school board committee completed its work on a draft policy that calls for the elimination of prone and supine restraints. It also would prohibit seclusion with one exception being “in situations where physical restraint is contraindicated for a particular student.” That exception would only be in place until June 30, 2024, according to the policy.
Leichliter and other administrators assured the board that they believed the exception is unlikely to be used, and that those circumstances are rare and have not occurred this year or in recent memory.
That exception led several board members to not vote for the new policy on Wednesday.
Fayston representatives Mike Bishop and Danielle Dukette both voted “no,” and Duxbury member Life LeGeros abstained. All three thanked the policy committee and the administrators for their work on the policy but said they would have liked to see a full ban on seclusion.
“I don’t think it makes any sense to let it go for another year,” Bishop said.
Dukette agreed calling the new policy “a substantial step forward” that falls short of the input the board heard from the community on the issue. “The input from the community was quite extensive and very passionate. There are strong feelings against the use of seclusion,” she said. “They are now working effectively without it … I had to vote in support for what the community has spoken so strongly about. That’s my job on this.”
Leichliter said the point was discussed at length at the policy committee level with administrators. “While the belief is that the district wants no instances of seclusion, the committee felt that if a parent felt that for reasons such as personal physical trauma that seclusion was preferred as opposed to restraint, there should be a very specific procedure written that would consider this as an option with medical documentation,” he said.
The new policy requires that school staff follow state guidelines in using seclusion, and procedures in how to implement seclusion under this new policy are needed for next school year, he noted.
LeGeros acknowledged the challenge the committee had in crafting a policy that charts new ground. “It is such a tough issue because there was just a lot of harm done by our district and probably resulting trauma from that. It’s awkward because most of us weren’t necessarily here or at this table during that time,” he said. “But when there’s a process that’s creating harm especially disproportional to people who are from marginalized communities, you gotta stop the harm. I appreciate the leadership from (Leichliter) for stopping that as far as restraints go. Ultimately, the fact that we allow seclusion to last another year, there’s no secret that I’m disappointed in that.”
Lawmaker Wood said she was happy to see the district take the first step in moving away from the tactics that are considered harmful and dangerous. She echoed disappointment that seclusion was not fully banned for another year.
“The school district has made great progress in the last year, and I look forward to continuing that progress for the safety of students and staff. I am hopeful that the bill I have introduced banning seclusion and restraint, H.409, will be adopted during the next legislative session,” Wood said. “Although the state has a policy on the use of restraint and seclusion, obviously there is no enforcement and very little data tracking on this issue. The impact on students is undeniable and so this needs to change on a statewide level.”
Dalla Mura said Thursday that he was happy to see the new policy adopted for the coming school year. “I look forward to the 2024-25 school year when seclusion will also be banned in HUUSD schools,” he said. “Although the new policy gives me hope that fewer students will be subjected to inappropriate and dangerous restraint practices moving forward, my heart goes out to the students and families that were impacted by past practices.”
Warren School Board member Jonathan Young said he looks at the broad picture, and reflected that he didn’t think the school board and administration could have made such a significant change so quickly just several years ago when he joined the board. “It’s amazing and refreshing and hopeful to me that we’ve come so far so quickly,” he said. “We made good decisions. It makes me proud to be part of this board.”
This article appeared at www.waterburyroundabout.org online. For more on this article, go to waterburyroundabout.org
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