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In a compromise, NHC school board ends the use of designated seclusion rooms for next year

Policy language that ends the specified rooms.
Policy language that ends the use specified rooms for seclusion.

At Tuesday evening’s New Hanover County school board meeting, members voted unanimously to end the district’s use of seclusion rooms for the next school year — but the practice of secluding students will still be allowed in emergency situations.

The decision comes after advocates like district parent Sandy Eyles and Peter Rawitsch of the group Love Our Children have pushed the board for over a year to end the practice of seclusion rooms. During the evening’s ‘Call to the Audience’ 75% of the speakers asked the board to end the practice as well.  

Tuesday night's vote means the district will no longer provide rooms specifically designated to seclude a student for emergency behaviors like harming others or themselves.

However, the district will still allow secluding a student in any room if they possess or use a weapon or a dangerous object or they attempt to hurt or assault another person.

The district maintains that they still have to use the term, ‘seclude’ because that’s the wording the state uses when a student is without staff supervision and told not to leave a room.

Further, the policy still reads that a teacher or staff member can reasonably seclude a student if they need to prevent or break up a fight, if they need it for self-defense, or if they need to ensure the safety of other students, employees, volunteers, or any other person present.

According to district staff, it’s likely if a student is engaging in any of these extreme behaviors, staff would be calling law enforcement for support.

School board members agreed this was a compromise between advocates who want to completely end seclusion so that the practice will not be misused for lesser infractions in the future — and staff who need the ability to protect themselves, and their students, from harmful behaviors.

Eyles said she’s still not satisfied with the outcome, as she claims the district won’t ensure safeguards to prevent misuse of the rooms, as she’s alleged they’ve done in the past.

Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam maintains that secluding a student is not to be used as a disciplinary consequence, but only for the aforementioned emergency situations.

Vice Chair Stephanie Walker asked Varnam how the training for the staff has been going in terms of learning de-escalation strategies – and she clarified whether the use of seclusion rooms will stop being a part of a student’s individualized education plan (IEP).

Varnam reported that last week they’ve found additional carryover funding from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief fund (ESSER) and some unused funding for afterschool programs to provide more training to staff to deal with student crises. She said the district has already been approved to conducttrauma-sensitive schools training with staff. And that she’s working to secure training withLives in the Balance.

Varnam reiterated that this training will help teachers and staff to recognize warning signs of impending student misconduct and to intervene before the student loses control. And to Walker’s question, “No, the use of seclusion will not be a part of any student’s IEP moving forward.”

At this point, board member Judy Justice praised advocates who pushed the district to act. Kraybill responded that this was the best compromise between the teachers and staff who have reached out to her and the board to say they’ve had “significant” injuries from students in the past and supporting the advocates who don’t want to see the rooms used for things like not complying with directions or students engaging in abusive language.

Board member Stefanie Adams also supported the comments given by Kraybill – that there have been some teachers and staff who have contacted her about being physically hurt and “traumatized” by student misconduct.

She at one point said there was district staff who wanted to come and speak at the ‘Call to the Audience’ about their mistreatment by unruly students but told her they couldn’t share their stories because they feared “retribution and retaliation” by the very advocates who want to end the use of the rooms. Adams didn’t name who the specific advocates were.

Walker and Justice chimed in to say they didn’t want to “vilify” anyone in the audience. Walker said they’ve also talked with teachers and staff about their safety and echoed the calls for more professionals to help students in crisis.

“They don’t want to seclude kids either but they want additional support like having an assistant in the room with them,” Walker said.

After the meeting concluded, Eyles can be heard yelling, “Adams, you chose to slander me by calling me a bully. You lie and it’s not right. [..] Good riddance and get off the board. I have fought for teachers, you lie, and you suck at your job.”

Adams didn’t respond but laughed at Eyles.

Below: NHCS' amended seclusion policy.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR