ANCHORAGE — Alaska's largest school district repeatedly and inappropriately secluded and restrained students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday following an investigation into alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to an agreement reached between the Justice Department and Anchorage schools, the district will eliminate the use of seclusion at all schools and ensure that students are only restrained when there is imminent danger of "serious physical harm to the student or another person."
"In districts across the country, we have seen seclusion used against students with disabilities as an improper crisis response and in ways that escalate student behavior and can lead to self-harm," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
"When schools use seclusion and improper restraints as the default method of managing the behavior of students with disabilities, they violate the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act," Clarke said.
"We refute that there was discrimination on the basis of disability. But regardless of any sort of settlement, we don't believe that seclusion is a best practice and therefore we've moved in a different direction," Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said in a call with reporters.
Since 2017, five other school districts across the country have entered into agreements with the department over seclusion enforcement, including in Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Indiana and Kentucky.
There were no monetary terms to the Anchorage district's settlement.
"Despite state law and the district's own policy, and contrary to generally accepted practice, the district did not limit its use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations," the Justice Department said in a statement. "Rather, the district used restraint and seclusion to address noncompliant student behavior, resulting in students missing large amounts of instructional time."
It also found that some students who were put into seclusion harmed themselves and some expressed suicidal thoughts.
The practice was found at five Anchorage schools, one of which no longer has programs for students with disabilities. It's not known for how long the practice was in place in Anchorage, but Tarlesha Wayne, senior director of special education for the district, said it has been widespread across the country for decades. She couldn't say how many Anchorage students have been involved but that it was more than 100.
When a student is placed in seclusion for threatening themselves or another person, they go into an empty room that has a door and a lock on the outside and cameras inside. A staff member or administrator is outside the door monitoring the student to ensure their safety. The time they are inside varies, from seconds to several minutes, until the student no longer poses a danger.
Going forward, the district will have a student enter a multisensory de-escalation room, which does not have doors or locks. Staff members and students will work to identify what their sensory needs are and use specific activities to support those needs, giving the student the opportunity to self-regulate or to calm themselves with the support of a staff member.
The district is not allowed to use any type of medical or mechanical restraint. If needed, one or two adults typically hold the arms of a student on each side to prevent them from hitting a staff person or attacking another student.
The agreement will ensure the district adheres to "policies that are equity-focused, child-centered and trauma-informed," Clarke said.
The Justice Department said the Anchorage School District fully cooperated with the investigation, which began in November 2020, and began to reevaluate its practices before the investigation was completed. Bryantt became district superintendent last summer.
Under terms of the agreement, the district will eliminate the use of seclusion at all district schools beginning with the 2023-2024 school year.
It will ensure that students are only restrained if their behaviors pose an imminent threat to themselves or other students. All such incidents involving restraints will be documented.
The agreement also calls for management plans in classrooms serving students with disabilities that discourages the use of restraint. Instead, staff will reinforce positive behavior and use appropriate de-escalation techniques.
Students who have been repeatedly secluded will be provided counseling and the opportunity to make up for lost classroom time, and parents will be informed of their rights to file a complaint with the district over the use of restraint and seclusion.
The district has already hired someone to monitor the oversight of changes to its practices. It's also established a website to outline the settlement and the steps it is taking.