RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) is in the final stages of putting together regulations for when public schools can use a controversial type of discipline, seclusion and restraint.
Schools and state officials say these methods can be used, as a last resort, to prevent a child from hurting themselves or others. On the other hand, parents and advocates say children can be impacted by these forms of discipline both mentally and physically.
A law proposed by Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell in 2015 kick-started the process for the VBOE to come up with regulations on the use of restraining and isolating students. Board members finalized these guidelines Thursday after Virginians weighed in.
Alexander Campbell has been sharing his story throughout this process. The 13-year-old is on the Autism spectrum and has become an advocate after a number of experiences at the private schools he has attended.
“The principal put me in a seclusion room, he told me if I ever told my parents he would lock me in the room every day,” Campbell said. “These rooms are dark and scary for children.”
Campbell was also put in a restraint that left more than scars.
“Not only does it call physical harm, but after you’ve been through that you do not want to learn because you do not trust your teachers,” he said.
During the meeting, board members brought up concerns about the impacts of prone restraints, which is when someone is held down while laying on the floor. Victim advocates and families say these types of restraints cause breathing problems.
“I am also concerned about the mental health that involves when a child is put into a prone restraint,” board member Dr. Francisco Duran said.
Some also called into question if the training that would be required under the new regulations would be enough to prevent improper restraint methods from being used.
“I don’t think that I’m prepared enough to rely on the level of training to be the guide,” VBOE President Daniel Gecker said. “In a perfect world, the training would be such that everyone who received it would be proficient but the experience in the field seems to be different than that, at least based upon news reports from various jurisdictions and the training itself, in fact, may not be adequate.”
After a lengthy discussion, the board moved to ban prone restraints, as well as “any other restraints” or seclusion methods “that restricts a student’s breathing or harms the student.”
The regulations also require school divisions to report each year to the Department of Education how often they use restraint and seclusion on students. This information will be made available by a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA), but “requests will adhere to policies and procedures to protect student identity,” a department official clarified in an email.
Parents or guardians must also be notified within two days that their child has been isolated or restrained during the school day.
The guidelines also require that school staffers, in school divisions that use seclusion and restraint methods, receive training on these regulations as well as skills on “positive behavior support, conflict prevention, follow-up support and social-emotional strategy support for students, staff and families.” The regulations do not explain what standards the state will use to evaluate these training methods.
When asked if the training methods will be evaluated by the state, we were given copies of the regulations by a department spokesperson.
Gov. Ralph Northam still has to sign off on these regulations before they take effect. Technically, if 25 people or more request an additional public comment period, this process will be put on hold.
At the meeting, we requested on-camera interviews with board members and a department spokesperson. We were denied these requests and asked to use quotes from the group discussion.