Advocating for change in Billerica Massachusetts

Today’s guest author is Carole Reardon.  Carole is an advocate and parent from Billerica Massachusetts. Currently, she is a stay at home mother, however, she spent over 20 years in the education field and has an undergraduate degree in human development, with a minor in early childhood education. Additionally, Carole has a Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, with a concentration in literacy from Lesley University.

I began my advocacy work to increase awareness and parental involvement related to the use of restraint, escort, and seclusion rooms which are often branded as calming spaces. I was concerned with a lack of consistent parental notification and that there are ambiguous definitions related to the voluntary and involuntary use of seclusion. I had a personal understanding of these spaces as a family member was subjected to restraint and seclusion.

Between 2014 – 2017, our family cared for a distant cousin who had previously been in several foster homes. He was in first grade when he came to our home. During the time he was with us, he attended two different elementary schools within my school district. He was routinely restrained and secluded at school; we were told that this was necessary to address his behavior. I advocated, without success, for him to be placed in a setting that would better meet his needs and hopefully reduce those behaviors that were being addressed with restraint and seclusion.

In July 2017, at a school committee retreat, the superintendent stated that some parents do not want their child placed out of the district. He went on to discuss with other parents the behavior of our cousin. We realized then that we had not been fully aware of what was happening in the classroom. I recognized enough to know it was my family he was discussing. I could not believe what I heard. Our family suffered, my cousin suffered, his classmates suffered.

In September 2017 I attended a School Committee meeting. I had 114 restraint forms in hand, all done over 5 months on a 3rd-grade student.

Some of the forms showed 3 and 4-hour periods where my cousin was secluded in the “calming space”. I have been pursuing this issue ever since I became aware of what happened. We believe that the use of restraint and seclusion by the school district led to trauma, the impact of which we were not prepared to handle.

In September of 2017, I met Doreen Healey, a wonderful advocate. The first time we met I learned that there were more cases like ours. Together, Doreen and I have successfully submitted several complaints to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in regards to reporting issues about the use of restraint. We suggested the need for oversight of the “process” of documenting and reporting the use of restraint. Recently we had a successful complaint involving the condition of two seclusion rooms that were in use for the LABBB Collaborative program, which is described as the “behavioral” program. We have met with members of the Department of Education, Massachusetts State Senate and Congress, local school system leadership, and the media. We have worked with the Disability Law Center and brought to their attention each instance during a written or public statement where leadership within the school district describes these (seclusion) spaces as, ‘mandated” or specified for use on specific populations.

Our goal is to clarify the ambiguity of the Massachusetts law and regulations related to the use of restraints and seclusion in schools throughout the state. We want a policy that ensures a parent’s right to be informed any time a child uses a seclusion room or calming space, whether voluntarily or involuntarily for any amount of time within. The use of seclusion can lead to trauma and parents should know before sending the child back to school the next day. We know the use of these rooms indicates a child is in distress. We would not dismiss a different medical emergency, why these medical emergencies? We want to start here but I will not be satisfied until the Department of Education clarifies for parents and guardians the difference between a calming space and a seclusion room, as the difference between sensory spaces and 10×10 empty padded rooms is significant. One is a tool to help children regulate and one is traumatizing. Most importantly, no more restraints, for any child for any reason, we must and can do better.

Due to recent events, including the death of George Floyd due to the use of restraint, our District Superintendent and Federation of Teachers released a public statement of solidarity. They indicated that they want to listen and make positive changes needed moving forward, this is a wonderful sentiment. I challenged both institutions to review their use of restraints and seclusions on our most vulnerable students. I received a message from David Adams President of the Billerica Federation of Teachers that “it is not the time” to discuss this. I say no better time than now. The Billerica Federation of Teachers and Billerica School Department have been vocal about their lack of support for parental notification related to the use of seclusion rooms. It is time for our local institutions to self-reflect on how they treat their most vulnerable populations. We have a 17% poverty rate, we are considered a Title 1 district, we have a diverse community, multiple languages and I believe a 19% special education population. We have homeless students and foster students, grandparents raising grandkids. It is hypocritical to call out other institutions while not being 100% transparent on your use of force including restraint and seclusion. I started protesting outside of my district office Monday, June 15th. I will continue every week, for 2 hr. increments until they deliver the policy they promised parents.

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