Farmington STEAM Academy seclusion room sparks protest

Amanda Thielen’s son was a first grader at Kenbrook Elementary School when he first experienced a seclusion room.

Nicholas, now a 5th grader, has a range of developmental issues. Being isolated in a room with an adult holding the door closed, on multiple occasions, has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), his mother said.

After a transfer to Forest Elementary School, Nicholas is thriving. Amanda credits principal Steve Vercellino’s approach and more school staff trained to educate students with emotional impairments.

Nicholas has had seclusion room experiences at Forest. While sitting in his classroom, he can sometimes hear students banging on its door. His mother and other district parents believe there’s a better way.

Student safety, dignity

A decision in February to spend $30,000 on a seclusion room at the Farmington STEAM Academy sparked passionate public comments and a change.org petition with more than 1,500 signatures.

Speaking during the February board meeting, Vercellino said he calls the seclusion room a “safe room”. He said he will often sit with students until they’ve calmed down.

The room is padded, with a window and mirror that allow staff to watch the student at all times. The door may remain open; it locks only from the outside.

“The big part is, we do a lot of things to try to prevent our kids from having to be restrained or secluded,” Vercellino said. “We give them visuals and teach them how to self-regulate.”

Acting Superintendent Bobbie Hayes Goodrum is also former principal at Visions Unlimited, the district’s program for young adults with developmental disabilities. She said all special education staff are trained in “nonviolent crisis intervention techniques”.

“We only use seclusion or restraint as a last resort,” she said. “Many of our students have very complicated needs, and some of those needs include serious mental health issues.”

Special Education Director Jackie McDougal said a seclusion room can also help preserve a student’s dignity, as losing control in the classroom can be embarrassing. Some students may even sense when they’re having an issue and ask to be moved into the room to deal with it, she said.

Lasting effects

District resident Sunday Koffron Taylor knows the effects of seclusion and restraint first-hand. She experienced both as a child and grew up in the foster care system with kids who were disabled.

When she heard the district planned to install a seclusion room, she said, “my heart sank.”

Taylor doesn’t believe anyone is intentionally trying to hurt students or to cause trauma. People do what they know and what they’ve been taught, she said. While children with disabilities have been mainstreamed into general education classrooms, training hasn’t caught up.

Rather than seeing an outburst as a battle of wills, Taylor said, adults can take a problem-solving approach, modeling self-control and building the relationship. The behavior, while difficult to handle, may be the only thing the child feels they can control.

“This is 2021, we know better. We know trauma has life-long consequences,” Taylor said. “When there are different tools available, then you have an obligation to do better.”

Without the room

District staff during the February board meeting said the STEAM seclusion room would serve six students with disabilities. Without it, McDougal said, the district may have to transfer students to schools in neighboring districts that have those rooms, with costs as great as $100,000 per child.

The number of students with autism has “increased exponentially” she said, from one or two classrooms to seven or eight across the district. Without the seclusion room, McDougal said, the district risks disproportionately suspending those students.

“We don’t abuse children, we’re here to help, support, and build our students,” she said.

Not every school has a seclusion room. Goodrum said that the district had previously segregated students based on what was available in each building.

“That is not what we want to accomplish,” she said. “We want students to have what they need in their neighborhood school.”

No compliance guarantees

McDougall and Goodrum acknowledged that students have been isolated in rooms other than designated seclusion rooms, and were not as safe as they could be.

“We cannot guarantee at any time that everyone will always implement all of our strategies and protocols with fidelity,” Goodrum said. “Someone was dismissed from Visions for a seclusion that we considered inappropriate.”

Amanda Thielen said she has not seen that kind of accountability for her child. During a recent virtual meeting with parents, she said, district staff seemed unresponsive and refused to consider seclusion room alternatives.

Trust issues

The problem is more than just a handful of parents, Thielen said. She pointed out that the parent of a child with special needs recently sued the district in federal court over an incident at Kenbrook.

According to a hometownlife.com story, a special education teacher scratched the boy while grabbing his arm. In addition to the physical injury, an attorney for the family said he suffers from aggression issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have had parent after parent contact me who have similar stories,” Thielen said. “Parents are made to feel like their child is the only one, when in fact, this is a dangerous pattern in our district. We have real problems with the ethics of our special education department. I don’t trust them to have this room.”

The Farmington/Farmington Hills Social Justice League has organized an April 14 workshop, “Learning About Seclusion & Restraint.” It will feature Guy Stephens, Founder and Executive Director of the Alliance Against Seclusion & Restraint. To learn more, visit facebook.com/events/271667754589883/.

 

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