An open letter to Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost

Ms. Bost, Ms. Ostenso, and Ms. Tayman

I had the opportunity to view the public comment that you provided to the Calvert County Board of Education on Thursday, October 10th and wanted to reach out to you. Like you, I believe it is important that our schools are safe for students, teachers, and staff. Like you, I believe that it is important that we do better in managing challenging behaviors in the classroom.  While I don’t know the facts around the situation, I am very sorry to hear about the injury sustained by Mrs. Hillyard earlier this week at Mutual Elementary School. The Calvert County Public School System certainly needs to do all they can to support all the students, teachers, and staff in our schools.

Since last Spring I have been a member of the Calvert County Board of Education’s Restraint and Seclusion Committee. I started advocating against the use of restraint and seclusion in our school system after my son was inappropriately restrained and secluded on several occasions leading to significant trauma. In my research, I found that Calvert County had the highest rate of seclusion and the second-highest rate of restraint in the State of Maryland. I also learned that Calvert County’s policy related to restraint and seclusion was not in compliance with Maryland State law (COMAR). I knew based on our family’s experience and the experiences of other families that restraint and seclusion were being used in Calvert County Public Schools in situations that were not consistent with state law. A change in policy was necessary not only to bring the county into compliance with state law, but to make our schools safer for our students, teachers, and staff.

The updated policy 3215 is a step in the right direction as it aims to reduce and eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion in our schools. The use of restraint and seclusion leads to an increase in injuries and trauma in students, teachers, and staff. There is data that demonstrates that reducing and eliminating restraint and seclusion can lead to a reduction in staff and student injuries, fewer workman compensation claims and higher rates of teacher satisfaction. Isn’t this the goal – safer schools for all.    

In the course of the public comments at yesterday’s meeting, there seemed to be the assertion that the challenging behaviors in our schools are related to the change in policy 3215. However as was mentioned in the public comment by Ms. Ostenso, this is an issue that has been brought to the attention of the Board of Education for the last two years.  Challenging behaviors did not begin as a result of changes in policy 3215. There is nothing in the policy that would lead to an increase in challenging behaviors. The changes in the policy brought Calvert County Public School System into compliance with state law and aim to reduce and eliminate the dangerous practices of restraint and seclusion.  In fact, as was mentioned at yesterday’s meeting, the Calvert County Public School System has added resources and additional training to better support teachers dealing with challenging behaviors in the classroom. One such effort is the introduction of Ukeru, which is a trauma-informed crisis management approach that focuses on de-escalation and provides strategies and protective gear to classrooms that are implementing the program.  

There was also the suggestion in the public comment that the threshold for intervention is too high, but let me remind you that it is state law (COMAR) and the Maryland State Department of Education guidance that determines when restraint and seclusion can be utilized. This guidance is consistent with federal guidance provided by the United States Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights.  As I’m sure you are aware Maryland State law (COMAR) says that:

The use of physical restraint is prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools until there is an emergency situation and physical restraint is necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after other less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.

and

The use of seclusion is prohibited in public agencies and nonpublic schools until there is an emergency situation and seclusion is necessary to protect a student or other person from imminent, serious, physical harm after other less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined inappropriate.

Since 2014 the Maryland State Department of Education has provided clear guidance as to what is meant by “imminent, serious, physical harm”. The most recent guidance issued from the Maryland State Department of Education states:

Imminent, serious, physical harm has the same meaning as serious bodily injury as used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It means bodily injury which involves:

i) A substantial risk of death;
ii) Extreme physical pain;
iii) Protracted and obvious disfigurement; or
iv) Protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

I applaud Dr. Curry and the Calvert County Board of Education for passing an updated version of policy 3215. Reducing and eliminating the use of restraint and seclusion is the right thing to do and will make our schools safer for students, teachers, and staff. The new policy provides clear definitions to ensure it is compliant with state law. The updated policy also includes a high degree of accountability and transparency with reporting requirements. It is clearly a step in the right direction.  

The Ukeru pilot program and more focus on trauma-informed practices are also steps in the right direction. That said I do agree with you that more is needed. The question then is how do we do a better job of supporting behaviorally challenging children and reducing disruptive and unsafe behaviors? How do we provide teachers with training and resources to better work with neurodiverse children who exhibit challenging behaviors? Unfortunately, a teacher who lacks the appropriate training and resources can unintentionally escalate children, especially when using aversive techniques.       

I believe that part of the answer is a more proactive approach. Rather than dealing with predictable problems reactively, we need to do more to solve problems before they escalate.  I have been advocating the Restraint and Seclusion Committee for training in the Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach. This is an evidence-based practice developed by Dr. Ross Greene and the Lives in the Balance organization. If you are unfamiliar with the CPS approach I recommend you read Dr. Greene’s book “Lost at School”. This approach is based on modern neuroscience and the simple premise that kids do well if they can. When children are not doing well it is most often due to a lagging skill or unsolved problem and the approach focuses on proactively collaborating with children to teach lagging skills and solve problems. This training is available at a reasonable cost and could have an immediate positive impact on our school system.

I would agree that there are other factors to consider, in terms of staffing and support. It is my understanding that we don’t currently have an adequate number of school psychologists in the county and I realize that there may be other staffing needs and challenges. I would agree based on my own experience that we do need ways to expedite the process of getting children the support that is needed. How do we support children that may not yet have an individualized education plan (IEP) but clearly need additional support?  There is work to be done here.  

As I’m sure you appreciate, children with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. It is critical that we are doing all we can to reasonably meet the needs of children with disabilities in their least restrictive environment as required by federal law (IDEA). It concerns me when I hear things along the lines of “these children don’t belong” or “these kids need to be in special facilities”. While some children may require more restrictive placement the thought that children with disabilities that may have some behavioral challenges don’t belong are both discriminatory and disturbing. Unfortunately, people that do not have experience working with children with disabilities often do not understand the many challenges faced by parents and educators. The mob mentality of we need to get “these children” out of our schools is harmful. Diversity and inclusion not only benefit children with special needs, but in fact all human beings benefit. It is important that when speaking on this issue you and others of sensitive to the complexity of the issues, and not encouraging discrimination and segregation.  

Perhaps we can work together to offer meaningful and realistic recommendations to the Board of Education. Recommendations that are focused on making our schools safer for all students, teachers, and staff. Recommendations that offer training and support to provide teachers and staff the tools and supports that they need to be successful. Recommendations that don’t discriminate or segregate neurodiverse and minority children. I would be happy to meet with you or others that are truly interested in making meaningful improvements to our local school system or offering recommendations to our Board of Education.  I do appreciate your concern and passion for the teachers and support staff that you represent.  I do believe that Dr. Curry and the Members of the Board of Education are very concerned about the issue and do support making our schools safer for all students, teachers, and staff.

Sincerely, 

Guy Stephens

CC: Superintendent Daniel Curry, President Dawn Balinski, Vice-President William Phalen, Tracy McGuire, Inez Clagget, Pamela Cousins

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