District votes to examine restraint, seclusion and isolation policies

{child_byline}By Tran Nguyen


Eleven-year-old Ryphath Knopp waited for five hours to speak at Monday night’s Columbia School Board meeting with index cards in hand.

When it was finally his turn, Ryphath was direct with the board: “It’s just not humane to trap children up,” he said.

“It is just simply not safe.”

Accompanied by his mom Becca Wilkinson, Ryphath was one of about a dozen community members who spoke against the district’s draft policy on restraint, seclusion and isolation.

The board was set to vote on a number of changes Monday night, including the change in the definition of seclusion, the elimination of an annual training requirement, and the extended timeline for teachers to complete an incident report. But after hearing from parents and advocates, the board postponed its vote; instead, it voted to send the language back to its policy committee.

The decision to halt the vote came after pictures of two seclusion rooms in construction in the Center of Responsive Education started to circulate on social media last week. The rooms, built and operated by Catapult Learning, a contractor recently hired by the district, sent such shock waves throughout the district that Board President Helen Wade said she decided to tour the facility herself.

At Monday’s meeting, Wade said the rooms “are sufficient size” for a child to move, lay down or stretch, but aren’t roomy enough for running. She also noted that the rooms have been painted and that the only way to lock the rooms is for a person to hold down the door handle from the outside.

The rooms “do not look like the pictures that have been circulated,” Wade said at the meeting.

She also noted that the current students in the Catapult Learning program were referred by their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, with their parents’ consent. Parents also receive a package upon agreeing to enroll their kids in the program that includes forms about crisis intervention techniques and the program’s use of “protective hold” in the rooms, in cases of emergency.

Superintendent Peter Stiepleman explained that the district implemented Catapult Learning at CORE, which serves students with special needs, after teachers asked for more help last school year.

“The whole purpose of this program and CORE, in general, is to provide an intervention that will allow that student to go back to their home school and remain in a normal classroom,” Wade said. “This is not a district that I perceived to find the use of restraint or seclusion as a behavior modification tool, a first resort nor is it a punitive tool.”

Ryphath, now home-schooled by his parents, said the practice was used on him as a discipline method. He recalled an incident where a teacher told another student: “Ignore him. He’s just looking for attention.”

“I have a mental disorder and I find that very insulting,” Ryphath said.

Wilkinson, holding back tears at the podium, said her son was put in a separate room and sent home when he continued to “escalate” when he attended Derby Ridge Elementary two years ago.

“This became a daily occurrence,” she said. One time, he came home with bruises on his arms, she added.

Wilkinson and Ryphath urged the board to find proactive prevention methods in handling students with special needs. Wilkinson said her son’s behavior has improved since she learned how to understand his needs and identify his triggers.

“He doesn’t need punitive measures; he doesn’t need restraint; he doesn’t need a bare padded room,” Wilkinson said. “He needs appropriate intervention.”

Advocates and parents waited past 10:30 p.m. before the board started discussing the policy Monday night. Many of them criticized most of the changes proposed in the new policy.

Robyn Schelp, President of Missouri Disability Empowerment, specifically called out the change in the definition of seclusion, which adds the word “unattended.”

The additional word could create a loophole that allows a child to locked in a room but not be considered seclusion and, therefore, not require the incident to be reported to parents because a teacher is outside the door, she said. Instead, the incident would be considered a “time-out” — something that is not regulated in duration or frequency.

“Any student can be put in time-out for any reason,” she said, while the policy specifies that isolation and seclusion can be used only in crisis situations or in accordance with a student’s education plan.

“Every parent should take note about this possible policy change,” Schelp said, adding the district is “taking a suggestion to strengthen the policy and using it as a platform to significantly weaken the policy.”

Others were concerned about the elimination of a requirement for annual training on restraint, seclusion and isolation policy, citing that training helps teachers and staff better prepare to de-escalate in crisis situations.

Some criticized the district’s proposed extended timeline of 10 days before families receive an incident report when their child has been restrained, secluded or isolated.

Angela Jasper, a representative from Faith Voices of Columbia, said she also toured the seclusion rooms last week and received reports that the rooms had been used while under construction. She urged the board to reconsider the changes proposed in the new policy.

“We need to pause and educate (parents) on the long-term effect of seclusion on both students and teachers,” Jasper said. “Teachers sent me these pictures. They’re scared.”

Sitting among concerned Columbia parents were Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, and Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport. Both have expressed interested in strengthening state laws on restraint, seclusion and isolation.

Mackey said he plans to re-introduce a bill from last session that would limit the practice, which received much support from stakeholders. He said some of his colleagues across the aisle will help support the bill.

“We received a lot of support last time,” he said. “We just ran out of time.”

Stiepleman said the new policy was drafted based on the Missouri School Boards’ Association recommendations, but the district isn’t required to adhere to them. He added that the district will maintain its annual training requirement and reconsider the changes in its policy.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019. Graduate student. Reach me at tran.nguyen@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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