FREDERICK, Md. — It was the first day of third grade, and James had been in school for 19 minutes.

By 9:20 a.m., the 8-year-old was locked in a padded, closet-sized room. He’d remain there, alone, for nearly three hours.

Though Maryland law is clear that no child may be kept in seclusion for more than 30 minutes, Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) seemed to have found a loophole. In their logbook, staff recorded James’ seclusion time that day in half-hour chunks, according to discipline records provided by his mother and examined by The Frederick News-Post: 9:20 to 9:50. Then 9:51 to 10:21. Then 10:22 to 10:52. On and on until 12:08 p.m.

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“From what he explained, sometimes they would pull him out and then shove him back in,” said James’ mom, Beth. “Sometimes they would open the door and then just close it again.”

The News-Post is identifying James and Beth by pseudonyms and omitting the name of the school James attended to protect the child’s privacy.

James has a learning disability and a nervous system disorder that can cause him to act out in class. Beth acknowledged he could be a handful — talking during lessons, kicking his feet into his aide’s. By that first day of third grade, he was no stranger to seclusion. He’d return there on the second day. And the third. And the fourth.

By the time Beth pulled him from the school just a few weeks later, James had been secluded more than 80 times — all between April of his second-grade year and October of his third. Often, the incidents lasted far more than 30 minutes.

James was traumatized, Beth said. Since his first seclusion, he’d become violent and prone to meltdowns in a way she’d never seen. And the wounds were lasting: Years later, James still struggles to make it through a school day without a flashback or a meltdown. As it came time for him to start middle school — new teachers, new classrooms, new rules — he was terrified of all the unknowns.

“I can remember sitting with him as he’s rocking back and forth screaming,” Beth said. “And he said, ‘How do I know they’re not going to hurt me?'”

In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice informed FCPS it was investigating the district’s use of seclusion and restraint. The practices — during which staff physically immobilize students and lock them into empty rooms — are legal when they’re used to protect against “imminent, serious physical harm.”

But FCPS regularly turned to seclusion and restraint in non-emergency situations, particularly when it came to students with disabilities, the DOJ found. State data shows FCPS led the state by a wide margin in its use of seclusion and restraint between 2017 and 2019.

In the weeks since the DOJ investigation was announced Dec. 1, the News-Post spoke to more than a dozen people about the potentially devastating impact of these practices, including parents, students, staff members, advocates and experts.

Across Frederick County, kids who have experienced repeated restraints and seclusions are unquestionably changed, their parents said: They’re angrier, sadder and more afraid.

The district maintains it was aware of the problem before the federal government stepped in, and that it’s made significant strides in addressing it since. In a statement, FCPS spokesperson Eric Louérs-Phillips said the system was “dedicated to serving the whole child; academically, socially and emotionally.” He declined to address the specifics of James’ case or those of any other student.

James’ was one of four specific situations the DOJ examined as part of its review, said Beth’s attorney, Ashley VanCleef. What happened to him wasn’t a one-off incident, she said.

VanCleef, who runs a Frederick-based practice representing families in special education lawsuits, has worked with a “large number” of other Frederick County parents who have levied complaints regarding the use of restraint and seclusion against their children in recent years, she said. Typically, she’d end up in mediation sessions between the family and the district. Sometimes, she’d file claims with the state education department.

As a former special education teacher who has worked for the Texas and Oklahoma state education departments, VanCleef is familiar with the difficult position educators can find themselves in when a child is out of control. But in Frederick County, she believes the laws governing seclusion and restraint were too often bent or outright broken. Children were subjected to the practices for more than the legally allowable time, she said, and for behaviors that didn’t meet the necessary threshold.

“We’re using it in times where a kid is throwing their shoe or throwing their crayons,” she said. “That’s not a risk of serious bodily injury.”

Across these most severe cases, VanCleef said, the common thread is lasting psychological damage.

Under the terms of a settlement with the DOJ, FCPS must offer three months of weekly therapy sessions to every student it secluded or restrained between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2021.

“I can tell you right now,” VanCleef said, “it’s not going to be enough.”

‘A terrible nightmare’

Before 2018, Zeke Boddicker’s eyes would be bright in the mornings. He’d eat his breakfast happily. Waiting for the bus, he’d make singsong noises.

But after he started sixth grade, his mom, Kristi Kimmel, said something changed. Zeke, who has autism and is nonverbal, started to self-abuse — a behavior he’d never shown before. He’d pinch his own arms, bite his hands and punch his sides and legs until they were painted with bruises.

His distress began as the school bus pulled up, Kimmel recalled, and resumed when he arrived home in the afternoons.

“Anytime we would even get his backpack,” Kimmel said, “he would start hitting himself.”

That year, Zeke was newly enrolled in Rock Creek School, FCPS’s school for students with severe disabilities. When Kimmel toured the building, staff told her they hadn’t used the seclusion room in two years, she recalled.

On Dec. 29, 2021, FCPS sent Kimmel the final tally. Her son was secluded 206 times and restrained 71 times in less than one school year.

Like Beth, Kimmel was interviewed by DOJ investigators. When she saw the government’s findings, she felt validated in her belief that Zeke’s self-abuse was a stress response related to his seclusions — not a result of the transition to a new school or a struggle with puberty, as some staff had suggested.

Seclusion and restraint can hurt children, said Ross Greene, a clinical child psychologist who taught at Harvard Medical School for more than 20 years and wrote four books on behavioral challenges in kids.

The practices are especially harmful because they happen at the hands of adults whom children have been taught to trust. Some students will lose trust in authority figures altogether, Greene said, or lose their desire to attend school. Others experience residual anguish long after the ordeal ends.

“The kids I’ve worked with who were most affected by it are still affected by it, even though no one’s laid hands on them three or four years later,” said Greene, who now runs a nonprofit called Lives in the Balance and travels to schools, psychiatry units and detention facilities around the world to promote alternative disciplinary approaches. “A lot of people would say that meets the diagnostic criteria for post traumatic stress disorder.”

And the methods rarely improve behavior, Greene said. Sometimes, they make it worse.

Cole Longstaff, who was in the Pyramid program at Lewistown Elementary, recalled that staff would restrain or seclude a student in his class nearly every day. You could get locked away for arguing with a classmate or refusing to come in from recess, he said. The seclusion room wasn’t far from the classroom, and he could hear secluded students’ screams from his desk.

Lewistown is one of two elementary schools in the county that hosts the Pyramid program, which serves students with significant social and emotional needs.

The students hated seclusion, Cole said. The threat of it would immediately set them off.

“It would just make us angrier,” he said.

In a letter sent to FCPS on the day they announced the settlement, DOJ officials wrote the district’s use of restraint and seclusion “escalated students’ behaviors and often heightened their distress.”

For Sophia Warfield, whose son Shadin Goodin has autism, that rang true. During one semester of his second-grade year at Lewistown Elementary School, Shadin was restrained 42 times and secluded six times, Warfield said.

Shadin’s grandparents were the first to raise the alarm about the effects it was having on the little boy, Warfield said. “Something’s not right,” they’d tell her. Choking up at the memory, Warfield said she’d watch Shadin withdraw in the mornings as it came time to board the bus. Then, she’d watch him fall apart when he got home.

“It was just a terrible nightmare,” Warfield said. “You’d say, ‘Well, how was school today?’ And he would just curl himself up in a ball and just cry.”

Queen Wheeler saw similar changes in her son, Sulaiman. He began experiencing restraint around 2014, she said. He was a kindergartener at Spring Ridge Elementary then.

After a while, Wheeler could tell that her son’s confidence was shot.

“He would have meltdowns at home a lot. He would ask me if he was ugly. He would ask me if he was dumb,” Wheeler remembered. “Whenever I would try to compliment him, or tell him that I loved him, that he was sweet, that he was handsome, he would cry.”

Shadin and Sulaiman checked a series of boxes that put them at risk for repeated seclusions and restraints: Black, boys with autism in elementary school experience those practices at a rate much higher than their peers. The trend is borne out in FCPS data and nationwide.

The DOJ found FCPS performed 7,253 seclusions and restraints on 125 students during the two and a half school years it examined the school system. Eighty-nine percent of the reported seclusions and restraints took place at three schools: Rock Creek, Lewistown and Spring Ridge.

Spring Ridge and Lewistown were the only elementary schools in FCPS to host the Pyramid program at the time.

Parents of kids like Zeke, James and others recognize the challenges their children pose to educators. Zeke, unable to speak, would pinch his aides’ arms as a way to get their attention. It could be painful, Kimmel said.

James could be disrespectful, rambunctious, off-task. In incident reports, his teachers wrote that he would hit and kick them — but his mother is adamant that he was never violent before the pattern of seclusion began.

“I’m not going to pretend that he was the easiest kid in the world to educate,” Beth, his mom, said. “I’m not going to pretend like, ‘Oh, he was a model perfect student.’ But he wasn’t aggressive.”

James was repeatedly kept in the seclusion room long after teachers recorded on their incident forms that he was entirely calm. He grew accustomed to eating lunch there, Beth said. That was documented on the forms, too. If he was regulated enough to sit in the corner and eat his cheeseburger, Beth wondered, why on Earth wouldn’t they let him out?

When the issues started piling up, several parents told the News-Post, many felt intimidated by the complexities of a large school system. They didn’t know where to start or who to turn to. And when they did find an avenue through which they could share their concerns, many said, they were made to feel that their children were just too difficult.

“They fought me. They made me feel like I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Wheeler said. “They were the professionals, and I was just his mother.”

‘All about training’

In January 2019, Kimmel approached her son’s teachers. She was troubled by the steady stream of notes she had been receiving from the school saying Zeke was restrained or secluded.

FCPS officials said they’d send a behavioral specialist to observe Zeke for a day at Rock Creek. The specialist would make suggestions. They would find ways Zeke could do better.

After the visit, in an email to Zeke’s teachers obtained by the News-Post, the specialist wrote: “It wasn’t clear to me why he was brought (to seclusion) each time or how it was decided he was calm.”

While seclusion and restraint are, on paper, governed by strict rules, experts say school staff often fall into a pattern of knee-jerk reactions and arbitrary decision-making — not out of incompetence or ill will toward their students, but out of a lack adequate training and resources.

That can lead to an overreliance on the heavy-handed tactics and can harm children and teachers alike.

Teachers want students to feel safe in the classrooms, said Missy Dirks, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association. They don’t relish using seclusion or restraint. But special education staffers deserve to feel safe too, she said, which can be a challenge. Dirks hears about teachers being injured on the job “pretty consistently,” she said.

Wendy Campbell, who recently retired after 25 years as a special education teacher for FCPS, recalled being hit, kicked, bitten and even urinated on. Sometimes, she said, she could tell that restraint or seclusion in these instances only further escalated a student’s behavior. She wasn’t sure what other options there were, and she felt her kids could have benefited from mental health support that she wasn’t equipped to provide.

“It’s emotionally draining, because you want to help the child,” Campbell said. “It’s very stressful.”

As for the DOJ settlement, there’s one thing Beth thought was missing: Therapy for teachers like Campbell.

“I don’t think it comes from a place of malice,” Greene said of seclusion and restraint. “I think this is all about mindset, and this is all about training.”

While the challenges and dangers facing special education workers are real, the DOJ found FCPS used seclusion and restraint to address “noncompliant behavior that it should have anticipated and managed as part of educating students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.”

Former superintendent Terry Alban, who led the district for more than a decade, left her position shortly after the investigation was announced. Board of Education members declined to provide a reason for the separation.

Speaking publicly about the issue for the first time in early January, FCPS interim superintendent Mike Markoe acknowledged that teachers may have misunderstood the definition of “imminent serious physical harm” — the legal threshold a behavior must meet to warrant seclusion or restraint. It’s not synonymous with a safety concern.

“Some interpretation may be a student’s spitting, kicking, punching,” Markoe said. “But by the pure definition of it, it means a life or death situation.”

VanCleef, Beth’s lawyer, said she frequently met with Frederick County parents whose kids were restrained or secluded for behaviors like those Markoe described.

Sometimes, her efforts would lead to some form of relief — a change in an individualized education program here, a voucher for counseling sessions there. But VanCleef didn’t have the power to force what she felt was needed most: a paradigm shift in the district’s approach to discipline.

“I feel like I empty the ocean a teaspoon at a time,” VanCleef said. “It’s very difficult to bring about that systemic change.”

Brad Young, president of the Frederick County Board of Education, said the district’s biggest hurdle in bringing about any sort of major change is funding.

According to an FCPS analysis, the district had the second-lowest per-pupil expenditures of any system in Maryland for the 2017-18 school year. In 2018-19, it ranked last, despite having a median income well above the state average. The district far surpassed all other counties for its number of restraint and seclusion incidents in both of those years.

“There’s an absolute connection,” Young said.

Funding formulas are complex, Young acknowledged, and there isn’t a quick or simple answer for the district’s problems. One factor, he said, was the residual effect of years of bare-minimum contributions from the previous county government. He’s still trying to dig the system out of that hole. Every year, almost all of FCPS’ new money goes toward staff salaries, Young said, and its staff are still among the lowest-paid in the state.

Being strapped for cash means the district is limited in the new initiatives it can pursue, Young added. He can’t fund the amount of new mental health and counseling positions he’d like to see. Budgetary restrictions forced the board to cut central office positions that may have kept a closer eye on things like seclusion and restraint, he said.

In the wake of the DOJ report, Young said, teachers are “demoralized.” He defended them resolutely: They were doing their jobs, he said, and now, “people think they’re child abusers.”

“When you are trying to get by on limited resources,” Young said, “it’s going to have consequences.”

Moving forward

One week after news of the DOJ investigation broke, Angie Pisano sat weeping in the back of a school board meeting.

A few days before, Pisano’s son, Thomas, had texted the couple a link to the News-Post story about FCPS’s settlement with the DOJ. They knew the high school junior was trying to tell them something, and at their probing questions, he opened up.

During his time in the Pyramid program at Lewistown Elementary beginning in 2014, Pisano learned, her son was restrained and secluded repeatedly. She doesn’t know how many times — she said the school never notified her — and Thomas can’t say, either.

“I thought it was only for emergencies,” Pisano said, looking at her son, who is now 16, on a recent afternoon. “But you said it felt like abuse.”

Thomas nodded. His mother’s eyes swam with tears.

Now that the DOJ’s review is over and its findings have been widely publicized, schools are beginning the messy work of change, figuring out how to institute the myriad changes required by the settlement.

But as the district moves forward, some families, like the Pisanos, are just starting to understand the impact of what happened years ago.

Thomas and his family are beginning the messy work of healing.

Pisano is wracked with guilt, replaying the same painful thoughts on a loop in her mind. She wonders how she didn’t know. She tells herself she should have.

She reflects now on the day when Thomas’ teachers at Brunswick Elementary School called the police on him. That was in first grade, not long after he’d received his autism diagnosis.

She remembers the many times, before and after that, when she was called to the school to find his teachers at a loss, unsure what to do with the little boy who was crying and shouting and hiding under a table. She couldn’t hold a job that year because she had to be on call for him. She thought the Pyramid program and the staff at Lewistown would make things better.

Now, she thinks about other kids, Pyramid classmates of Thomas’ who transferred somewhere along the way. She wonders if they could communicate more clearly than her son could. Did they tell their parents what was happening? Is that why they changed schools?

“I’m supposed to protect him,” Pisano said, her shoulders shaking. “That’s my job.”

“Do you feel angry?” she asked Thomas shortly after. “Or do you just feel hurt?”

“Both,” he replied.

Thomas has a therapist at school now, someone his mom describes as “wonderful.” It helps to talk about the seclusions and restraints with her and with his family, he said. The kids didn’t really talk about it back then, even though — to the best of his recollection — someone was locked away almost every day.

Cole, the other former Lewistown student, remembered it the same way. Reading the word “seclusion” in recent news reports unlocked memories he’d buried. Even back when it was happening to him and to his peers, he tried not to think about it.

“It was just not really spoken about,” he said. “It was just a thing that existed.”

Thomas and Cole are both still enrolled in FCPS schools. Zeke, Shadin and Sulaiman have all left the district, either for private schools or at-home instruction. They’re all doing much better, their mothers told the News-Post. Zeke’s self-abuse has stopped. The boys no longer cry when it’s time to get ready for school.

James is still struggling. He’s still plagued by flashbacks, though they’re not as frequent. His aggression has largely subsided. But to him, the classroom is still a terrifying place. He rides a bus for an hour each way to get to his new school.

While he excelled during the pandemic when he was able to avoid a physical school building, that’s over now. And three years out from his last seclusion, each day he walks through the doors marks the beginning of a battle.

James’ teachers celebrated a milestone moment for him on a recent afternoon. The occasion? He was able to stomach 25 whole minutes in his classroom.

Beth smiles when you ask about her son. She tells you things about him that have nothing to do with the dozens of hours he spent locked in a seclusion room as an 8-year-old — confused and alone and screaming to be let out — or with the resulting wounds he’s still trying to heal.

He’s brilliant, she says proudly. He’s hilarious. He’s a fiercely loyal friend, a lover of animals and a dedicated member of local science clubs. In his free time, the 12-year-old peruses college biology textbooks.

Stories flow out of Beth in waves, punctuated with laughter. James is always asking questions, she said, his curiosity remaining steadfast despite his fear of the classroom.

“So,” he piped up once during a car ride with his mom, “how much of ancient Egyptian culture do you think medieval Europeans were aware of?”

This is the boy Beth wishes the school district had seen more clearly. Maybe then, she says, things would have been different.

“Frederick County has done a really good job of dehumanizing our children,” Beth said. Her voice broke with emotion, and she paused. “Our children are valid and important.

“They’re people.”

© 2022 The Frederick News-Post
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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