December 14, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
When Jill Ely's autistic son tried to hit a high school aide one day last year, the aide pinned him to the floor, leaving him bruised and shaken, Ely said.
That was just the beginning of his troubles, Ely, of Wilton, told state officials Wednesday.
Wilton High School later developed a behavior plan that included a "safe place" where her son, who also is mentally retarded, could calm down when he became upset, she said.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the safe place would be a room with a door that would be held shut until [he] was completely quiet," Ely testified during a hearing sponsored by the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.
She was among several parents who called Wednesday for safeguards to prevent or limit schools from controlling behavioral outbursts by forcefully restraining children or isolating them in holding rooms.
More than 100 people filled a hearing room in Hartford as parents and children's advocates urged state officials to impose tighter restrictions against what they described as traumatic and dangerous techniques used in some schools.
Although state law imposes strict limits on the use of force or seclusion in programs operated by various state agencies, the law does not apply to public schools, said James D. McGaughey, executive director of the protection and advocacy office.
"It's a major gap in the law," he said.
Children's advocates asked for a revision of the law and called for better training of educators and public school staff members who deal with students with behavioral problems.
"We'd like to have our children not have anybody put their hands on them ... but the reality is that's what occurs," said Faith Vos Winkel of the state child advocate's office. "This is a critical issue."
In Connecticut, the settlement of a lawsuit five years ago required the state to monitor compliance with a federal law requiring schools to educate children with disabilities in regular classrooms whenever possible. But advocates say schools are unprepared to deal with the emotional and behavioral problems that some of those children bring with them.
"The result of the settlement ... is mixed," said Stacy Hultgren, co-director of the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center. "The settlement did not enforce training and supports to help kids succeed. Not all children with autism should be included in typical settings - the sensory overload of noise, movement, bombardment of language, complex social demands ... can make the classroom a hell on earth for some kids with autism."
Ely said her autistic son "can become frustrated, aggressive, raise his voice," but added that Wilton High School's use of the safe room frightened her son and caused him to try to escape.
Another parent, Maryann Lombardi, also from Wilton, said her autistic son was routinely sent to what she described as "a padded cell called the timeout room." She said such rooms "are creating a culture within the public school system where employees believe that if you have a disability label, locking you up is OK."
Wilton Superintendent of Schools Gary G. Richards said later Wednesday that privacy laws prevented him from commenting on specific cases but that the school system's behavioral procedures "are not based on punitive techniques."
"Any allegations and complaints that individuals have put forth have been investigated thoroughly, and there have been no findings against the district."
He said such cases stir deep emotions and sometimes "inaccuracies are put forth, and we are made to look like we're running some sort of penal colony."
He added, "We do the best we can with kids who sometimes are very challenged and present real behavioral problems."
Although parents have the right to file complaints with the state over the handling of special education students, there have been relatively few complaints citing the issues of physical restraint or seclusion, Gail Mangs, a special education official with the state Department of Education, said at Wednesday's hearing.
Some parents testified that schools did not always tell them when their children were restrained or placed in seclusion.
State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, who attended the hearing, said later, "It's astonishing that schools notify parents when their children get sick, but when there's a highly invasive action like physical restraint, [parents] are not notified."
Meyer, co-chairman of the legislature's select committee on children, said he plans to prepare legislation to provide better regulation of the use of force or isolation to address behavioral problems in schools.
Most studies, he said, show that "restraints and seclusion have not worked in most cases."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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