JEFFERSON CITY — State Rep. Dottie Bailey was hoping that a Wednesday night hearing would provide some clarity around concerns about the use of seclusion and restraint in a Columbia public school.
But representatives from Columbia Public Schools and Catapult Learning, an education company the district brought in to handle some special education services, both declined invitations to the hearing.
“We have again run into the roadblocks that have been consistently thrown up by the Columbia Public Schools and Catapult Learning as we have pursued the truth,” Bailey, R-Eureka, said. “At every turn, they have stymied our efforts to uncover the facts.”
Earlier Wednesday, the House gave initial approval to Bailey’s bill that would add regulations to the use of seclusion and restraint in Missouri.
This is the first school year that the district contracted with Catapult Learning to provide services for students at the Center of Responsive Education, or CORE. All students at CORE are on individualized education plans, or IEPs. These plans are designed for students with disabilities and outline the specialized instruction, supports and services needed, according to the district.
The Columbia School Board approved a revised seclusion, isolation and restraint policy at its December meeting after more than 100 parents, students and advocates spoke at a September meeting. The new policy, drafted after meeting with representatives from the Special Education Parent Teacher Association and Missouri Disability Empowerment, clarified the school’s responsibility to notify parents after an emergency situation resulting in seclusion, isolation or restraint and to create a plan to avoid using those methods in the future.
Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Dardenne Prairie, was the chair of the committee that held the hearing. Columbia Public Schools is not in Hicks’ district, but he said that didn’t matter.
“We are doing it for the kids,” he said. “We are doing this to bring out the coverup. … We are trying to get to the bottom of it all.”
Michelle Baumstark, Columbia Public Schools spokesperson, said district officials were not given enough time to rearrange plans and were unable to attend. She said district policy prohibits seclusion, which involves a room with a locked door, and that recent changes only updated the notification requirements. Baumstark also stressed that Catapult was a separate entity from the district, even though the two had entered a contract to provide services to students.
“Their program is a last attempt to keep the child in an educational environment when they haven’t been able to be successful in CPS,” said Baumstark, who did not attend the hearing..
Angela Jolley, a learning specialist with CORE, testified at the hearing Wednesday night. She said the CORE building houses two programs, Quest for students in grades 6-12 and FOCUS for students in grades K-5. FOCUS is run by Catapult Learning employees. Jolley works with the older students, but she said she noticed changes right away.
“The first day, we all were a little bit concerned because our kiddos were not aware that there were changes,” Jolley said.
Jolley said the district’s official policy for seclusion and isolation was only to use those practices when students were a danger to themselves or others. She said she observed isolation rooms used in a way that was inconsistent with those standards.
“They were being used constantly,” she said.
Jolley also said that a classroom closet was temporarily used as an isolation room while two more permanent rooms were being constructed.
Angela Jasper, a former Columbia Public Schools employee now serving on the education committee of local advocacy group Faith Visions, also spoke at the hearing.
Jasper toured the CORE facility Sept. 4, after Faith Visions received pictures of the seclusion rooms and reports of the closet smelling like urine. She said before her tour, changes had been made to the seclusion rooms compared with the pictures. Jasper worked as a behavior specialist in the district‘s special education department from the fall of 2016 to the spring of 2018. Based on the photos and the reports of the closet seclusion room, she filed a report with the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, which she said was ignored.
Having previously worked in CPS Special Education, Jasper said she understood the purpose of the CORE facility. When a student’s home school felt like they no longer had the resources to help the student, they would move to CORE to create the “least restrictive” environment possible, Jasper said.
She said she left because she was, “not OK with being involved with what I felt was unethical.”
Hicks said it was unfortunate that the committee heard only one side of the issue Wednesday and that Columbia Public Schools officials have told him that they will attend another hearing later this month.
Legislation moves forward
House Bill 1568 would modify rules regarding seclusion and restraint as a disciplinary measure in public schools. The bill was widely supported on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said that this bill will help stop a form a discipline he doesn’t agree with.
“It’s never acceptable for a school district to use isolation as a discipline,” Pollitt said.
Others also said this bill should be the beginning of a larger conversation. Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, a former elementary school counselor, urged lawmakers to consider why this method of discipline has become more common in recent years.
“We should not have to force a child to fail multiple times over weeks and months before we give that child the support they need,” Burnett said. “We need to extend the conversation to understand why this is happening.”
Jordan Meier contributed to this report.