RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school system is now acknowledging restraining and secluding students hundreds of times after previously not reporting any cases to the state and federal governments.

Data presented late last month shows that there were 864 acts reported between July and December 2023 when Wake school employees either restrained a student or secluded them in a locked room away from other people. It’s a figure that school administrators said is too high.

“We are committed to clear and accurate reporting and improving our systems to support the reduction of seclusion and restraint incidents,” Jill McKenna, assistant superintendent for special education services, told the school board’s student achievement committee.

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Wake Has Paid $900,000 In Settlements

McKenna said the district has known for years that there are concerns about how the seclusion and restraint data has been reported in North Carolina’s largest school district.

Last August, Wake agreed to pay $450,000 to a family who said their elementary school child with a disability was confined in a closet more than 20 times. As part of the lawsuit settlement, Wake agreed to make multiple changes in how it handles and reports case of restraint and seclusion.

Wake settled another lawsuit in 2020 when it agreed to pay $450,000 to the family of a high school special education student who said he was illegally physically restrained and secluded.

‘More Accurate Reporting’ Of Data

Schools can restrain students and seclude them in another room for several reasons, such as stopping a fight or preventing injury to themselves or others, according to Disability Rights North Carolina. But the group says schools can’t use the practice solely for disciplinary reasons.

Cases of restraint and seclusion are supposed to be reported to the state Department of Public Instruction and the U.S. Department of Education.

But Wake hadn’t reported any cases of restraint and seclusion to the federal government in the 2017-2018 school year.

As part of last year’s settlement, Wake agreed to “correct” its data with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on how often restraint and seclusion was used from 2016 through the 2021-2022 school year.

Other parts of the settlement include updated training for school employees on the use of seclusion and restraint and notifying parents by the end of the school day if their child was restrained or secluded.

“Based on the data that we are going to share today, we are confident the updated trainings have moved us closer to more accurate reporting of seclusion and restraint,” McKenna said.

Mostly Students In Special Education Impacted

According to the data, restraint was used 629 times during the last six months of 2023. This includes physical restraint and mechanical restraint, such as handcuffs or zip ties.

There were 235 reports of the use of seclusion, which involves isolating a student in another room and preventing them from leaving.

Some incidents are double-counted because the state and federal definitions for seclusion and restraint are different.

Those 864 instances involved 240 students, most of whom are students with special needs with an identified disability.

Jamal Woods, director of student due process, said special education students are more likely to be “dis-regulated” and require seclusion and restraint to get back under control.

“Seclusion is also for keeping our kids safe as well,” said school board member Tyler Swanson, a former special education teacher and chair of the student achievement committee. “This number may seem very high but it’s also we’re keeping kids safe that are reacting and the students who are in the classroom as well.”

Is The Data Now Accurate?

Jocelyn Pease, isn’t sure that Wake’s numbers are an accurate reflection of how often restraint and seclusion are used. Pease has been reaching out to other special education parents since settling her lawsuit with Wake last summer.

According to a judge, Pease’s then 9-year-old daughter was placed alone in a closet 22 times as a school employee held the door closed to keep the child inside. Sometimes she was isolated for upwards of 87 minutes.

The judge said Pease’s daughter was secluded for things like flipping back her chair, flipping markers, grabbing a teacher’s arm and “being annoying.”

“They were calling what happened to my child a time-out when the correct definition was seclusion,” Pease said in an interview. “My big concern is, how are they making sure that those reports are correct so that it’s really time-outs and not seclusions?”

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