Controversy Swirls over Saline Area Schools' Use of Seclusion and Restraint

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The controversy over the Saline Area Schools district's use of "seclusion and restraint" reached new heights last week.

Heather Finch and Tiffanie Alexander spoke out against the district's practice of seclusion and restraint at the Feb. 23 board meeting. Monday morning, they said, Interim Superintendent Steve Laatsch called Finch and Alexander to inform them they had been removed from the district's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Coalition. Both say they are being punished for speaking out against the district's practice of seclusion and restraint.

Finch said she was stunned to receive the notice from Laatsch.

"I am absolutely blown away at what was said during that phone call," Finch said. "I thought he was calling to tell me that he was going to be looking into the situation and figuring out what was going on, not to say that my accusations were untrue and that my comments were against what the DEI stands for."

Finch said she felt like it was retaliation and said she fears for what that might mean for her children in the district.

"I’m am terrified about retaliation against my kids now," Finch said.

Finch does have a child in the district who has been subject to seclusion and restraint. Alexander does not. She was speaking in support of the concerns of parents like Finch.

"He told me I am removed because I spoke at the board meeting, which makes it difficult for teachers to do their jobs," Alexander said.

Laatsch had no comment on the matter.

Seclusion is the confinement of a student in a room from which they cannot leave. Restraint is an action that restricts a student's movement.

Michigan state law says these practices may only be used when a student is a danger to themselves or others. Incidents must be documented by the district, reported to parents, and submitted to the state.

In recent years, the district saw a dramatic rise in the use of the practice.

State data shows that there were 13 students with disabilities reported as secluded or restrained in 2017-18 in Saline Area Schools. There were 121 seclusions and 23 restraints.

In 2018-19, that number had jumped to 26 students with disabilities reported as secluded or restrained. The number of seclusions jumped to 167 and the number of restraints increased to 310.  Those numbers were later reduced to a total of 308 after a review by Saline Area Schools officials late last year. The district said some cases were reported two or three times.

In 18-19, four other school districts in the state restrained students more than Saline, according to state data. Using the newer data, the district ranks around 15th.

The district asked the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to conduct an audit on the district's practices. 

Seclusion & Restraint Likened to Imprisonment

During public comment at the last meeting, Finch told the board that her son, a kindergarten student, was put in "a cell" more than 30 times over a seven-month span. 

"You can't escape the emotions that come from putting a child in a cell," Finch said. "He was bruised, traumatized and left with lasting PTSD from this treatment."

Finch said her son is thriving this year because he attends school virtually and feels safe again.

Alexander alleged the district's practice was in violation of state law. Alexander also said the WISD audit was biased because Saline Area Schools employees were consulted and parents were not.

"What this comes down to is nobody wants to care about what the parents have to say, or the children," Alexander said.

Alexander also referred to the practice of seclusion as locking children in a cell.

WISD Audit

The WISD audit was presented by Cherie Vannatter, a former Saline Area Schools employee who is interim deputy superintendent for the WSID, and Melissa Paschall. supervisor for special education ancillary services for the WISD.

As Vannatter noted, Saline Area Schools has been well regarded for including special education students in general education. She said the district should be proud of an inclusive environment that promotes growth and independence in its special education students.

Paschall noted that compared to other Washtenaw school districts, Saline Area Schools' special education students are more impacted by their disabilities. She noted that Saline Area Schools students make up just 2.9 percent of the students in the WISD's specialized student programs.

Paschall said this data speaks to the district's practice of inclusion.

Vannatter told the board seclusion and restraint is only used in emergencies and as a last resort, in accordance with school district policy and state law.

Vannatter said the WISD review showed district staff was properly trained in the use of seclusion and restraint and crisis prevention.

Paschall said eight of the special education students in Saline made up 81 percent of the seclusions and restraints. The young adult program made up 30 percent of those.

Vannatter noted a recent Saline Area Schools survey of parents that showed 84 percent of participating parents rated special education services at 7-out-of-10 or higher. 

A staff survey showed that of 111 staff surveyed, 1.8 percent of staff believed seclusion and restraint had been used as punishment, Vannatter said. Those instances took place at the secondary level, where administrators have been notified, Vannatter said.

Several of the WISD's recommendations to the district were about data reporting.

The WISD made the following recommendations:

  • Data entry training by the WISD
  • Review data prior to submitting it to the state.
  • Grow the multi-tiered system of supports for students' social-emotional needs.
  • Train, review and monitor behavioral interventions and supports.
  • Continued participation in statewide autism resources and training.
  • Written behavior plan guidance for special education staff and administrators.
  • Training with staff about services and restorative practices for staff.
  • Training for form completion. At times, Vannatter said, three reports were made for one instance of seclusion and restraint.
  • A monthly review of seclusion and restraint reports.

Vannatter said some of these recommendations are already taking place.

Trustee Brad Gerbe asked if the special education department could provide that monthly report to the Board of Education so it could see if progress was being made.

Molly Garcia, Director of Student Services for SAS, suggested instead a better idea would be for board members to visit the buildings and witness the types of interventions staff are involved in.

Trustee Aramide Boatswain asked for more recent data. Vannatter suggested the most recent data would be skewed due to the COVID-19 school year.

Boatswain said the district has parents who just want the practice of seclusion and restraint to go away.

Garcia said the district is required to have a seclusion and restraint policy.

"Our policy is to create programming to where the students don't need to have the aggressive behavior," Garcia said.

"We've just gone through a presentation that's a follow-up to an emotional outcry from our parents this fall. We said we are going to discuss their concerns. And we've read this report that said we're going to offer more training on top of training that is not working right now, according to the parents," Boatswain said. "We can't come back to this board table and have this conversation again."

Garcia said the board level was not the right place for the kinds of specific discussions that were needed to solve the issues. Those discussions should take place with parents and staff, she said.

Interim Superintendent Steve Laatsch suggested he have more conversations with the impacted families.

"If we are saying there are students who need more support than we are providing, I want to be talking to those families," Laatsch said.

Trustee Susan Estep asked how the district would handle a report of inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

Garcia said such an incident would be handled like any other allegations of inappropriate conduct. Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Curt Ellis said if an allegation is made, the district investigates and communicates its findings with parents.

Trustee Jenny Miller, a former Saline Area Schools teacher, said the district's special education staff is the best she's ever worked with and that the district's inclusion model is exemplary. She said she wants parents and students to have the same level of trust she does in the district's staff.

Miller said she felt the parents' voice was missing from the presentation.

Trustee Dennis Valenti said the audit should help the district understand what it can do to improve things, but he implored people to remember what the district does well.

"Let's not lose sight of the reputation that we have," Valenti said.

Trustee Michael McVey said the high number of incidents of seclusion and restraint doesn't seem to correspond with policy language that states it should only be used in an emergency and as a last resort.

"Part of it is the wording of our policy, and the fact that we have eight students responsible for 81 percent of these cases. We see the word 'emergency' and see the word 'last resort,' but when it happens over and over and over again, you start to wonder, 'are we doing the right thing?'" McVey said. "Are we doing the right thing for that handful of students?"

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