A letter regarding Powhatan, Virginia’s restraint and seclusion policy

The story that follows is an email that Alexander J. Campbell wrote and sent regarding the restraint and seclusion policy being proposed in Powhatan, Virginia.

I hope this email finds you well. I am writing this tonight with grave concern and fear regarding the future of our school system. The truth is when I originally sat down to compose my email tonight, I was considering sugar coating my message. But, upon further thought and consideration, it would be erroneous to be anything but direct. That is because I am talking about an important topic: restraint and seclusion, which in my opinion is a form of child abuse and torture. Specifically, I am referencing proposed Policy JM.

In some way, you are connected to this school system. Whether your kids go to our schools, your grandkids go to our schools, you retired from our school system, and/or your immediate family teaches in our schools; and (hopefully) you have care and concern for every child in our school system. I would like you to bring the items on that list applicable to you to the forefront of your mind as you read the remainder of my email.

My concern is that if Policy JM is passed as written, children will potentially suffer severe harm and emotional trauma, staff members will potentially suffer severe harm and emotional trauma, minority populations will be disenfranchised, our limited budget will become negatively impacted, and PCPS will potentially be out of compliance with state regulations.

You may have heard me speak at a school board meeting, you may have spoken to me over the phone, and you definitely have received written communication from me. Whether it is regarding passing a confederate flag ban or ensuring LGBTQ+ students are protected at the middle school, you have heard from me in some way, shape, or form. In these experiences, I have amplified the voices of others who are all too often left behind. However, today, I want to amplify a story about me. It is a story that is purposely left out of the conversation by school system employees, powerful lobbyists, and even the Virginia Board of Education. The story is my experience regarding restraint and seclusion. It is important to keep in mind that these instances occurred in schools that I was placed in by Powhatan County Public Schools.

When I was 7 years old, my principal would literally drag me out of the time out area and into the seclusion room. After being shoved into the seclusion room, the principal would slam the door shut and pull a large wooden desk across the door so I could not leave. I remember hearing the scraping sound of the desk as it moved across the door, knowing that I was there, alone. The seclusion room itself was a converted storage closet with walls painted black and had a barred window. Not only did the principal put me in the seclusion room, he told me that if I ever told my parents he would lock me in that room every day. These rooms are dark and scary for children. To the best of my knowledge, you have children. I would like you to take a moment, pause, and think about your child at 7 years old. Now, I would like you to imagine your child literally dragged out of class and placed into a seclusion cell like the one I described. How does it make you feel? How does it make you feel knowing that if Policy JM is passed as written, that could happen to your child, grandchild, or any student?

At a different school, I was subjected to a restraint that sent me to the hospital. The teacher used a restraint that involved grabbing me by the throat and slamming me on the floor. She kept slamming me on the floor until I couldn’t stand up any more. Even individuals that train people on how to perform restraints, will admit that this was not a restraint. This was a pure act of physical violence, in order to assert dominance and authority. The school later admitted that she was improperly trained. The school was placed on an improvement plan by the Virginia Department of Education, but nothing happened to the teacher. Instead the school moved the teacher to a non-verbal classroom, so she could repeat the same behaviors, and no one would have a voice to stand up for themselves. I would like you to take a moment, pause, and think about your child at 7 years old. Now, I would like you to imagine your child sitting in a hospital bed, because their teacher repeatedly slammed them on the floor. How does it make you feel? How does it make you feel knowing that if Policy JM is passed as written, that could happen to your child, grandchild, or any student?

My experiences with restraint and seclusion caused both trauma and pain while the restraint and seclusion was occurring and it continues to cause trauma and pain to this day. Because of that, I hope you can understand that if Policy JM is passed as written, I will not feel safe at school. Not only will I not feel safe because of the trauma I have faced, but also, staff members assaulting students is not a new issue in our school division​. 

Furthermore, when teachers use restraint and seclusion, they are often severely traumatized​. Teachers often require intensive therapy and in one situation, a teacher decided to take her own life due to an instance of seclusion she was involved in​. Additionally, in 2014, the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions conducted a study which found, “There is no evidence that physically restraining or putting children in unsupervised seclusion in the K-12 school system provides any educational or therapeutic benefit to a child​.” Because of this, prohibiting seclusion is preeminent.

Unfortunately, restraint and seclusion disproportionately impacts students with disabilities, as well as black and brown students​. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found the following: 16% of all students are students with disabilities, students with disabilities constituted 80% of physical restraints, students with disabilities constituted 77% of seclusions, and students with disabilities constituted 41% of mechanical restraints. 18% of students with disabilities are Black. However, black students made up 26% of students with disabilities who were physically restrained, 34% of students with disabilities who were mechanically restrained, and 22% of students with disabilities who were subjected to seclusion. The numbers only continue to get worse. There is a clear civil rights issue occurring here and by not addressing it, PCPS is potentially contributing to systemic discrimination on the basis of disability and race regarding restraint and seclusion. My recommendation would be to establish internal data collection on the issue. I would recommend publicly releasing the data on a monthly basis. Then, I would recommend having the equity and diversity committee study the data to determine whether or not PCPS is being discriminatory in using restraint and seclusion. If discrimination is clearly evident, then I would recommend having the equity and diversity committee create goals to stop the discrimination and having the school board monitor whether or not the goals are being achieved.

Using restraint and seclusion comes with a price tag. In our case, taxpayers will end up footing the bill. A United States Department of Health and Human Services Study determined that every incident of physical restraint can cost an organization up to $354​ . Grafton, a private day school for students with disabilities in Virginia found that by not using seclusion and having less than 10 restraints a year, they saved $16 million in lost time expenses, turnover costs, and worker’s compensation​. Unlike Grafton, money spent on restraint and seclusion would most likely increase in Powhatan, not decrease, if Policy JM was passed as written. Additionally, because we do not have seclusion rooms, our school division would be required to spend money and time installing them, if neither Policy JM or the superintendent’s procedures did not include a seclusion ban.

Furthermore, I am concerned that Policy JM could potentially place Powhatan County Public Schools out of compliance. The School Board as an entity is ultimately responsible for the actions of the superintendent. This means that if the procedures are not developed, are developed in a manner that does not follow the regulations, or the developed procedures blatantly violate the regulations, the legal burden ultimately falls on the School Board. Based on my recent interactions with a senior Central Office staff member, it appears the regulations are already being ignored. The state’s regulations​ finalized this summer clearly state, “Any seclusion room or area shall be free of any objects or physical features that may cause injury to the student. Any seclusion room or area shall be of sufficient dimensions and shall have sufficient lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation to comport with the dignity and safety of the student. Windows in the seclusion room shall be constructed to minimize breakage and otherwise prevent the occupant from harming himself. All space in the seclusion room shall be visible through the door, either directly or by mirrors.” In comparison, a senior Central Office staff member said “any area could be deemed an area used for seclusion.” It does not take an attorney to recognize that what this individual said clearly violates the regulations. Past actions are always the best indicator of future actions, which leads me to believe procedures will be drafted with similar language, which would place the division out of compliance.

In closing, I would like to share a solution with you. I encourage you to change the policy prior to passing it. I have attached Fairfax’s proposed policy​ . Their policy makes an attempt to protect students and teachers. I would recommend passing Fairfax’s proposed policy AND adding a plan to appropriately combat systematic discrimination and ensure all students are treated equitably. It is important to note that US News’ top eight public high schools in Virginia are schools operated by Fairfax County Public Schools​ and US News’ top public highschool in the country is a school operated by Fairfax County Public Schools​. A response to my email would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Alexander J. Campbell


  • Alexander Campbell

    Alex Campbell is an advocate for students with disabilities and the Executive Director of Campbell Advocacy. Alex is an individual who has autism and an amazing self-advocate. When he was in elementary school, he was subjected to restraint and seclusion for disciplinary reasons. In 2014, Alex began advocating for the need to regulate the use of restraint and seclusion.

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