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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Deep Dive: NHCS's use of seclusion rooms far exceeds other districts, apparently, while its oversight policy leaves questions

Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam gave a tour of Lake Forest seclusion room.
Bethanie Simms
Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam gave a tour of Lake Forest seclusion room.

New Hanover County's public schools account for nearly half of the statewide use of seclusion rooms — but administrators haven't been able to explain why the district's numbers are so high. And that's not the only question that advocates have raised about their use.

According to the Civil Rights data collection maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, in 2017, New Hanover County used seclusion rooms on students with disabilities 467 times and nine times on students without. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, which has nearly 6 times as many students, used seclusion rooms 36 times on students with disabilities.

In 2015, NHCS's numbers were also disproportionatedly high — and over the past few years, NHCS has used seclusion rooms even more, nearly twice as much in the 2018-2019 schoolyear.

This significant discrepancy is one of the reasons advocates are calling for NHCS to end its reliance on seclusion rooms. But, at the same time, the alternatives being proposed are considered by some teachers to be an oversimplification of the issue.

Advocacy to end the use of seclusion rooms

In 2019, Sandy’s Eyles seven-year-old daughter was subject to a seclusion room at Cape Fear Center for Inquiry. Allegedly, a teacher became angry when she could not get compliance and locked her daughter in the room.

The school administration found the staff had violated the Greenblatt Act, which regulates the use of seclusion rooms in North Carolina, and immediately closed down the room. Sandy’s daughter now attends a public school in New Hanover County.

Eyles then became a regular advocate at school board meetings, asking to end the use of seclusion rooms. She has partnered with national-level advocacy groups Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint and Live in the Balance to seek a model that eliminates the use of the rooms altogether.

The groups argue the practice is outdated and dangerous. Eyles wants other parents to be aware of the dangers and common misuses of the room.

“The research from the past 50 years tells us that there are better ways to handle behavior, and seclusion and restraint often exacerbate that behavior. It is dangerous for staff. It's dangerous for students," she said.

What is a seclusion room?

The rooms have many names: the blue room, calming spaces, seclusion rooms, and in some cases storage rooms.

State requirements say the rooms must be 6’ x 6’, and most are roughly 6’ x 8’. The rooms are required to have a window so the staff member can monitor the child. Nearly all the room interiors contain thick blue padding from floor to ceiling to stop the child from self-harm.

They are also required to be properly lighted, ventilated, free of objects, and cannot lock in a way that the teacher can leave the child in there for hours on end. The lock engages but must be held by the teacher. If the teacher leaves the door, the lock is also released. The lock simply stops a stronger student from pushing their way out of the room if they are a danger to themselves or others.

During a tour at Forest Hills Elementary with Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam, she explained the room was used as a tool for children who reach an emotional stage where rational thought is no longer possible — known as emotional flooding. Posters that borrow caricatures from Disney’s "Inside Out" lined the wall are intended to help kids put emotional stages into words and images.

Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam shows emotional regulation cues used to help kids who struggle to internally regulate themselves.
Bethanie Simms
Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam shows emotional regulation cues used to help kids who struggle to internally regulate themselves.

When a child reaches the anger stage, Varnam instructs, that the child is no longer able to use rational thought. This is when the teacher may choose to engage the use of the seclusion room if necessary for the safety of the child and others. She noted that this gives the child (and even the teacher) time to calm down.

The internal walls of the seclusion room at Forest Hills Elementary were lined with puncture marks.
Bethanie Simms
The internal walls of the seclusion room at Forest Hills Elementary were lined with puncture marks.

Advocates say this would not be an issue if you ask the right questions — but teachers say it's not that simple. And at Forest Hills Elementary the blue padded wall was peppered with what Varnam said are stab marks and patches where previous damage had been repaired.

It was a real reminder that there are kids who perform violent acts.

Are they targeting disabled students?

Eyles believes the district has targeted disabled students, “Dr. Foust said that we have this policy in place for our disabled students and students with behavioral problems. But for him to target disabled students is really concerning.”

Varnam, who has extensive experience and credentials in special education and EC (Exceptional Children) student programs, said the rooms are generally used on those with an approved behavioral plan that includes the use of the room—but the plan isn't necessary should a child become violent.

She said the district’s goal is to educate every child including those students who in past generations might not have been able to attend public school.

“We don't say go away, you have behaviors that are really dangerous for yourself and others, you can't be here, that is not a part of our language, we serve everybody," she said.

And with that comes serious challenges.

“These classrooms are not for students with intellectual disabilities. These are classrooms for kids who cannot self regulate, and they have really significant or severe persistent behaviors that place themselves and others in positions of harm or danger," she said.

The reason the data looks like they are unequally targeting students with disabilities is that few incidents occur with students outside these classrooms, Varnam said.

Advocates against the use of the room also often cite imminent danger as the only allowable use for the rooms, however, there are several reasons permitted by the law, including preventing a fight, self-defense, responding to a person in control of a weapon or dangerous object.

The argument against the use of the rooms 

The data also shows seclusions are happening to the same kids over and over. Eyles said, “if you're having to seclude children multiple times. Clearly, it's not working to solve the behavior. And clearly, it's not creating a safer work environment or learning environment.”

Varnam said that the rooms protect everyone while kids build the emotional skills to self-regulate they need a safe space to calm down so they don’t hurt themselves or others — this, she said, takes time.

Maile Munson Director of Advocacy of Lives in the Balance said the repeated use shows a mismatch between the request of the teacher and the capability of the student.

“That challenging or concerning behavior is sending out a signal that I can't do something that you asked me to do," she said.

Lives in the Balance argues for the CPS model, which seeks a child’s core needs above compliance. The district uses the CPI model which deals with Nonviolent Crisis Intervention.

The difference seems to be that CPS looks at the skills kids lack in hopes of preventing a crisis, while CPI addresses the emotion management leading up to crisis moments. Both approaches are backed by research.

Maile says in her experiences as a clinical social worker starting with a more compassionate approach affects the whole classroom and has a greater impact on a positive relationship between child and teacher.

She said stopping the use of seclusion and restraint “impacted the entire school or facility, not only the child that now isn't being restrained or secluded because we're using a more compassionate skill-based understanding. But also the kids that are watching restraint, seclusion.”

The CPI model requires more time on the front end, which likely takes more resources and support staff. And with the recent flight of veteran teachers, younger more inexperienced staff may have a steeper learning curve.

A teacher’s perspective

A 15-year-veteran teacher who requested to stay anonymous to protect their identity for fear of retribution by the district said the rooms can go away. They aren’t necessary, they said—what is necessary is the requisite skilled staff which the district currently does not have and cannot retain.

In the wake of this shortage, the teacher said advocates, parents, and the district expects teachers to function as highly skilled therapists, something that takes years of education and thousands of clinical hours of practice.

Without those staff members, the teacher said “teachers are left to take on kids with behavioral issues we don’t have the skills to deal with.”

The teacher said they find over-simplified solutions, like those offered by advocacy groups to just ask different questions or listen to the kids, demeaning.

“Wouldn’t you think that a person who went to school to help kids knows to ask questions? Saying you just have to ask questions is very condescending," they said.

How do kids get specialized help?

Speaking to WHQR, the teacher said the current system to get a child who needs additional resources is incredibly difficult. Getting a child on an IEP plan takes nearly a year. First, the teacher has to recognize the issue and there are certain timelines required by law to wear out other remedies before they are assigned to an IEP. In total, she said it can take up to seven full months.

If a child’s needs aren’t identified right away, the kid could go on to the next school year and have to start the process all over again without the assistance they need.

When the child is finally put on an IEP, that plan requires specialized staff. The IEP assigns the student minutes with that specialized staff outside their regular classroom which gives them time to work on the skills these children lack.

The teacher explained that legally if a kid requires minutes; the school has to offer them. And if the school doesn’t have enough specialty staff to service those minutes? They change the plan regardless of the child's actual needs.

In the meantime, they leave teachers to try and operate as highly specialized therapists to that child all while teaching 15-20 other kids at the same time.

The teacher explained a scenario where they made a simple request of a child, a task the child had performed many times, they made the request in a calm tone. The request was something simple like moving an object a few inches — the child had a meltdown.

The teacher said, “why would I have ever thought, me asking the child to move something would cause that reaction?”

But the parents were angry with the teacher and blamed them for the child’s behavior.

“There is a mistrust of teachers," they said "people don’t understand what drives someone to be a teacher. I just want to help kids learn and thrive.”

But now, the teacher said the expectations are that they are a doctor, therapists, chef, mother, and teacher, all while having no work-life balance and struggling to pay their bills.

These demands are being made at a time when New Hanover County staff says they are already overworked and underpaid. The teacher admitted that after 15 years with the district they are leaving — notably leaving behind the pension they worked so hard to earn.

“Why would a teacher of that many years want to leave the career they love?” they said.

The real dangers for teachers and other students

Notably, the classrooms which require specialized employees are understaffed, according to TA testimonies from recent school board meetings. This shortage adds to an already dangerous situation for teachers, but they say it's not because of the rooms.

School board member Stephanie Walker told WHQR, “I got pictures sent to me from teachers where there were bruises all up their arms. They get kicked and call it all kinds of names.”

WHQR spoke to several teachers who reported being injured by violent children who threw things — several mentioned throwing chairs — and/or hit the teacher, leaving bruises. Three separate teachers discussed similar events, each asking to remain anonymous, often citing concerns about retaliation from the district for speaking out about the issue.

A teacher who wishes to remain anonymous sent this picture to board member Stephanie Walker (the picture was altered to remove identifying marks).
Contributed by Stephanie Walker
A teacher who wishes to remain anonymous sent this picture to board member Stephanie Walker (the picture was altered to remove identifying marks).

Teachers say one of the issues is there is no accountability for the parent’s role in their children’s violent behavior.

Eyles acknowledged that kids can be dangerous, “Unfortunately, there are situations where children at any age can get into a dangerous situation, if they're banging their head against the wall or if they're trying to hurt another student, you have to intervene.”

Eyles believes this situation should only allow for physical restraint, not seclusion. But. according to teachers who spoke to WHQR, this is where the injuries happen—leaving teachers helpless and subject to further abuse after the initial restraint.

A lack of accountability and oversight

At the New Hanover County Board of Education's first meeting of 2022, on January 4, the issue of NCHS’s high numbers of seclusion use came up. Varnam assured the board that there was appropriate oversight and accountability.

During the 2018-2019 school year there were 908 documented seclusions, 2019-2020 there were 751, and 2020-2021 there were 397, which included the shutdown. WHQR asked, with that many uses, how and when are possible misuses of the rooms investigated?

Dr. Sherri Pinto who is listed as the Dropout Prevention Supervisor, and has a background in redistricting and school administration is now in charge of the training, oversight, and investigations of these rooms — but there don't seem to be many investigations, at all.

“I've been in this job in this role since 2017. And literally, I have only conducted three investigations. And that was very early in my role," Pinto said.

Over the last two years, there have been 2056 documented uses of the rooms — and zero investigations.

And Pinto wasn’t sure where the reports originated or how they got to her.

“I don't know, who makes the request. Parents don't call me. They maybe speak to the principal at the school or call somebody at Central Office and then that person, you know, calls me and says: ‘Hey, can you go out and do an investigation?' I don't know where the report originated," she said.

Russell Clark, the media relations manager for the district said, “parents can report a violation to their school administrators or any district administrators. They also can use the Ethix360 or "say something," reporting applications. Those reports are then filtered.”

Filtration, it seems, means none of them have recently made it to Pinto, the investigator. Advocates say it's hard to believe that with over 2,000 seclusion room incidents, there hasn't been a single legitimate concern — but it's hard to know for sure without seeing original complaints. In a public records request, WHQR asked for the numbers and nature of the concerns parents brought to the district — the request did not receive a response.

When it comes to potential misuse of seclusion rooms, in theory, children are left to report on their teachers, teachers to report on each other, or principals to report on their own teachers. It's unclear if any of that is happening — despite Varnam’s assurances that it is.

School Board member Stephanie Walker said, “it's the structure of the leadership style, the top-down leadership, the gatekeepers, you know, the superintendent, current one, he's like, 'I don't micromanage.' So the principals are basically in charge of their school.”

This works great, she said, if the principals bubble up concerns. But it appears to create a single point of oversight for the district, meaning ensuring compliance lies solely in the school principal's hands.

And while New Hanover County Schools do have the highest numbers in the state, WHQR could not find an organization which holds the counties accountable (a common retort by others who have looked into the issue), which may explain why there has been no investigation into the county’s skyrocketed numbers.

Board discussion

Advocates began asking the district to consider ending the use of seclusion rooms in New Hanover County Schools early last year and finally at this month's regular meeting it was discussed under the new leadership of Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill.

During the meeting Varnam assured the board they were in compliance and that improper use is investigated.

“Anytime there is a concern of misuse of seclusion or restraint that focuses on seclusion, then those are reported. And those are investigated. And we do maintain an investigation process that is done by one of our CPI trainers,” Varnam said.

But when board member Judy Justice pressed, Varnam could not provide more in-depth information about the rooms.

Justice referenced recent U.S. Department of Education data that surfaced showing nearly half of the state's reported uses of the rooms came from NHCS, far more than larger districts like Durham or Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Varnam said she has reached out to DPI about accuracy in reporting of other districts, but Justice was not satisfied that in a month Varnam had not found some answers.

Stephanie Kraybill intervened, ”Miss Justice, is it necessary to integrate her when she says no?”

“I'm just trying to find out the figures. This is very, this is very concerning. If this, you know what is going on with our district, as far as restraint and seclusion. I've worked in other districts, and I'll be honest with you I've never seen anything like it," Justice answered.

It is unclear if the topic will be discussed again, but in the meantime district teachers and staff are stuck between concerned parents and advocates and an apparent lack of clarity and accountability from leadership.

Bethanie is a freelance writer for WHQR. She was the 2021-2022 UNCW News Fellow during the pursuit of her M.A. in English. She holds a B.A. in Political Studies with a focus on Constitutional Law. Originally from California and Colorado, she is a Marine Corps Military Police Reserve officer and an Afghanistan War Veteran. Her civilian professional background includes corporate finance and legal litigation.