Investigation into special education practices prompts changes

Newhall School District made changes to the district’s special education practices in recent months, after an administrative complaint prompted an investigation by the California Department of Education in 2017.

The complaint, which was filed after an alleged violation of state or federal special education law, pertains to the district’s non-crisis intervention practices and the use of restraints on students in the district’s SHINE program, which houses a significant majority of the Santa Clarita Valley’s emotionally disturbed students.

Robert Borrelle, who filed the complaint on behalf of a student’s family and all similarly situated students in NSD, said a student was restrained 45 times from Oct. 12, 2016, through Nov. 15, 2016, for non-emergency predictable behaviors, according to a state Department of Education investigation report. (The complaint did not identify the student.) “On Nov. 1, 2016, Jane Doe was restrained 15 times and some restraint holds were allegedly unnecessarily lengthy in duration and force,” the report stated.

In total, 31 students were restrained 593 times at district school sites between August 2016 and June 2017, according to the Education Department’s analysis, which found NSD to be out of compliance with educational code after district officials failed to prove physical restraint was necessary on every occasion.

Borrelle also alleged in the complaint that when a restraint was used on Jane Doe, the district failed to notify the parent within one school day, complete behavior emergency reports and other actions that led to multiple violations of education code Section 56521.1, the report states.

The complaint triggered an investigation by the state, which analyzed hundreds of documents and conducted an on-site investigation at the district on Nov. 7-8, 2017, to address the allegations, according to the report. The investigation included the review of more than 285 student assessments, behavior emergency reports — which must be filed anytime a student is involved in any type of restraint — and similar documents.

While Superintendent Jeff Pelzel and Director of Student Support Services Larry Brunson were not yet in their current positions when the incidents occurred, they have been tasked with instituting changes to prevent similar situations from happening again.

Brunson said Friday he started working for the district in October 2017, which was less than a month before the on-site investigation occurred.

“These are practices that have been happening for a long time, and the leadership in place now — many of us were not present when the actions occurred,” Brunson said. “We ask for everybody’s patience and consideration as we work through that.” The district wants the public to know that it’s still having conversations and working very diligently to make the program better.

Brunson said the district believes the changes currently being instituted will provide effective alternatives to the previous intervention practices, which served as one of the focal points of the investigation, according to the report.

Intervention Practices

Nonviolent crisis intervention programs have been controversial, but emphasize that physical restraint is recommended only when all less-restrictive methods of intervening have been exhausted, “and when the individual presents a danger to self or others,” the report states. “There is a psychological danger in using restraints, and being restrained can be a frightening, even traumatic experience,” which is why, “for these reasons and others, restraints should be used only when a person’s behavior is more dangerous than the danger of using restraints.”

The main component of nonviolent crisis intervention training is to use verbal de-escalation, Brunson said, and staff will hold students in a restraint only when a student has become a danger to themselves or others.

Brunson said a restraint is defined as a physical hold that is always a last resort, “and, based on what’s happened, staff are very reluctant to participate in any holds.”

The 2017 investigation report included references to several children vomiting, spitting up blood and receiving injuries to the eye during some restraints, which is why Education Code states: “No emergency intervention shall be employed for longer than is necessary to contain the behavior,” and any situation that requires the prolonged use of an emergency intervention shall require staff to seek assistance of the school administrator or law enforcement agency.

However, the school site administrator’s assistance was not sought in multiple incidents relating to at least one specific student, according to the investigative report, which mentions, “the school site administrator’s assistance was sought for only 1 of the 10 student’s (behavior emergency reports),” and there is no documentation of contact with the parent regarding the emergency reports.

“Of the 38 district staff identified as participating in student restraints, including classroom aides, teachers and administrators, the training and certification records reflect that 16 of the staff members involved in the use of restraint on students did not have NCI training or certification,” according to the district’s training records and the 285 behavior emergency reports provided to the department of education.

Child advocates said the district restrained students a staggering number of times, adding they would say the same for a district that’s three times larger than Newhall.

“Restraints used on students ranged from 20 seconds to 30 minutes in length per restraint,” and nearly half of the students’ behavior reports were determined to have emergency intervention restraints that were longer than necessary to contain predictable and repetitive behavior, according to the report.

Student seven

One 9-year-old attending Old Orchard — who’s referred to in the report as student seven — had a history of problem behaviors, including defiance to directions and physical aggression toward peers and staff, such as punching, charging, pushing, slapping or kicking when the student is asked to change from a preferred task to another, the investigation report states.

Student seven was restrained 13 times lasting from 1 minute to 12 minutes, according to the 10 behavior reports filed, and on Feb. 8, 2017, “the student was instructed to complete class work, but instead started kicking the cabinet, and then ran to the door. The staff blocked the door and the student started kicking the staff. The staff led the student to the transition room and placed the student in a restraint hold for 12 minutes.”

A behavior debriefing checklist indicates that some redirection took place before the student was separated from the class and taken to the transition room, “where the physical aggression escalated,” according to the state investigation report, “(but) there is no indication of any other de-escalation techniques being used, other than redirection.”

Brunson said the district no longer uses transition rooms, which he defined as a small space where a student can go to calm down and be away from stimulation.

Increased oversight

“Prior to me coming on board, one of the things that was happening was you had students with autism or eligible disabilities being placed in (SHINE) services, but the community needs to understand that you can’t mix different populations of children,” which is why the program is specific to children with emotional disturbances, Brunson said, before, adding some students were causing disruptions in the classroom simply because their special education eligibilities didn’t mix with others.

While staff would try to disengage one particular student, the other student might start harming another or themselves, which led to some of the restraints, Brunson said as he explained the program’s changes.

Since I have been on board, I review every referral that comes through, and I do not allow students to be placed in the program unless they have emotional disturbances,” he said. “We came together last year and revised what the appropriate student profile looks like for the program,” and district trustees approved a board-certified behavioral analyst position this month, which will be responsible for supporting the SHINE program.

“Really, they will be responsible for going in and capturing data of students to create professional development opportunities,” Brunson said, “so staff can have ongoing training on how to best improve their practices and de-escalate students.”

Newhall district leaders were also working on the formation of an additional regionalized program that could be housed at Oak Hills Elementary, according to a June 26, 2018, board meeting agenda. “This program is being developed in direct response to the recent investigation involving the SHINE program and the need to have a separate program for students with emotional disturbances and a separate program for students with autism that have significant behavioral issues.”

The district believes the unique program will address the needs of students with autism who display significant behavioral challenges, but there’s been no referrals as of now.

The conclusion of the investigative report states 13 required corrective actions that are to be undertaken by the district, including developing written policies and procedures for the proper use of restraint, conducting an all-day training session, among others.

Brunson said the district has completed 10 of the actions, and officials hope to address the rest in the near future.

“It’s going to take some time to correct these practices,” he said, “and move into a place where we’re really able to support these students.”

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