How is that legal?

“Why do parents send their children to that school?”

Today’s guest author is mother who has requested to be anonymous due privacy concerns for her child (the child’s name has been changed for this article).  The author is a mother of two, who works for local government. She lives with her husband, who works in sales, and their two children, one of whom is neurodiverse, and one who seems neurotypical, along with their three pets. Neither parent has a background in education.

I drove my 5th-grade son, Caleb, up to a historic brick building on a brisk, sunny March morning. I told Caleb that this was the first school built in the district, and promised to look up the year it was built after the tour if the school director didn’t know.

We signed in at the front desk, and the director greeted us and walked with us down the stairs to the basement or the “garden level” of the building. He explained that the only students in the building were special education students, and all the classrooms were in the basement. Students up to age 21 have a variety of disabilities – physical, developmental, emotional, behavioral, intellectual, etc. I noticed that there were stairs, and no ramp and the director said that making it accessible, along with central air conditioning and heat were “in the works.” 

Within the basement, the classrooms for students diagnosed with autism were managed by a for-profit contractor. It was divided into two types of classrooms – a language model, for nonverbal or minimally verbal students and an academic model for verbal students. We would be looking at the secondary classroom (grades 6 through 12), academic model. 

We walked to the classroom that our district special education coordinator had said she was “passionate” about – and recommended that Caleb transfer there immediately. There were no students because this was a monthly district-wide professional development late start morning.

There was a row of west-facing horizontal windows near the ceiling of the classroom that let in some light, right above ground level. Ten student desks faced three of the classroom walls, each with a student’s name, except for one. We’re told that all current students are boys, ages 10 to 17. There was a small round table, a teacher’s desk, and what appeared to be two well-used desktop computers. 

The director introduced Caleb to the teacher, a woman in her early 20s. (I had already met her). The teacher showed us the curriculum books, which were thin bound books neatly lined up on a small shelf, that apparently contained everything students need to know about every subject from 6th through 12th grade. These were the contractor’s curriculum, and the director said that they were looking into using the district curriculum in the future.

I asked Caleb if he had any questions. He told the director and teacher that he loves science and asked if they ever do science experiments. The teacher said that they wanted to do more experiments, and they had done one experiment. They had put some food on a shelf in the classroom and watched it rot over about three weeks.

I asked about access to technology, since in our district issues either a Chromebook or iPad to each secondary school student, and heard that students in this classroom just use paper and pens and pencils here, except for their literacy instruction, which is done by one of the two computers in the classroom with iReady, a computer program that supposed to give an “intervention” for students with learning disabilities.

We were also told about the discipline program, a big part of this classroom. The teacher fills out a full-page behavior report for each student each day. I took out my phone to take a photo of it and was asked not to take a photo because this behavior sheet is proprietary to the contractor. (If you’re curious, it was nothing special. Any parent with a ruler could design a similar sheet in 5 minutes.)

Teachers and aides are given a script that they use to first warn students, and then administer consequences according to the severity and frequency of the infraction. I asked what counts as an infraction. The teacher said, failing to be on-task, not listening, tone of voice – then she said, “that’s a big one,” not staying seated, talking out of turn.

If a student has four infractions in a 30-minute timeframe, the student “earns” a mandatory 5-minute “time-out” in the time-out room. 

The classroom uses a color-coded 5-level system to earn privileges. All students start at blue – right in the middle, and then go up to green and gold for good behavior, or down to yellow and red for bad behavior. Even if you’re on gold, some behaviors give you an automatic red. There was a list of them on the wall, but again, I was asked not to photograph it because it was proprietary. 

Students at the red level don’t leave the classroom all day, except to go to the bathroom (and they’re escorted). Red level students don’t participate in P.E., go to the cafeteria, or go outside at all. The director said it wasn’t a big deal to be at the red level because “it happens to everyone” and students are sympathetic.

It takes several days of good behavior and “making your day” to advance between levels, and it takes a month of good behavior at green to advance to gold. Students at gold are the only ones allowed to go to the restroom on their own. (I asked if some students in the classroom might have trouble doing this, need assistance, etc., and was told that all students are capable – it’s a privilege to be earned.) Students at the gold level are preparing to go back to their home school and begin spending time in general education.

I asked if there was flexibility in the program for students with an IEP that says they need to go outside every day for attention, focus, and mental health. The director says everyone follows the same program, and it works for everyone. I was also told students have a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with a social worker per week. 

Caleb and I asked to see the whole school, so we went upstairs to see the cafeteria and the gym, and then back downstairs to see the time-out rooms.

I had heard of the time-out room previously and questioned whether it was age-appropriate for secondary students to get time-outs. I had imagined the time-out room as a comfortable room with beanbags, fidgets, books, maybe an exercise ball.

We went through a door and immediately saw a wall with three solitary confinement jail cells. Thick wooden doors with a visible deadbolt were open. Each door had a small window at adult height – which was about one-foot square. Inside each cell was a gray painted concrete floor with unpainted concrete walls. The cells were about six feet from the door to the back wall, and about four feet wide. There was one exposed lightbulb with a short chain on the ceiling of each cell. 

I went into the cell and asked what students need to do during a time-out. I was told that they sit on the concrete floor with their back against the wall, either with legs out or cross-legged, and they need to be quiet for a full five minutes. I went ahead and sat down on the cold floor with my back against the wall, looking up at the teacher, director, and Caleb. I felt like I was in “the shoe” from Orange Is the New Black.

The door is open, so it doesn’t count as seclusion, and a staff member is watching students at all times. If you’re not quiet and seated, you get a warning, and if you don’t obey, you’re considered a threat, and the door is closed and locked, which then “counts” as seclusion and generates a report.

I asked how often students get time-outs and seclusions. I heard that time-outs are frequent/daily and that there had been two seclusions in this particular classroom over the past two months. (Later, our advocate visited the school and saw seclusions in progress. She asked if it was a particularly bad day, and was told that Mondays weren’t that bad – they called Tuesdays, “terrible Tuesdays,” because they tended to be worse – so the seclusion rate may be higher than once per month for that classroom.)

I didn’t make it the full five minutes, got up, thanked the director and teacher for the tour, and left with Caleb. 

When we were walking across the parking lot to our car, Caleb said, “How is that legal?” He also asked, “Why do parents send their children to that school?”

We hired a private psychologist to come to our next IEP meeting and say that the program the district had recommended would be detrimental to Caleb’s mental health, and he received a much better placement that does not use restraint or seclusion (it uses Collaborative Proactive Solutions instead), and a year later, Caleb is thriving.

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