A letter to the Board of Montclair Public Schools regarding restraint and seclusion

What follows is a letter sent on July 1st, 2022 to the members of the Board of Education at the Montclair Public School District regarding the district’s use of restraint and seclusion.

Board President Jannah, Vice-President Church, and members of the Board of Education,

I am writing to you today on behalf of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint (AASR) and the children and educators of Montclair Public Schools. AASR is a community of over 20,000 parents, self-advocates, teachers, school administrators, paraprofessionals, attorneys, related service providers, and others working together to influence change in how we support children who may exhibit behaviors of concern. The mission of AASR is to educate the public and to connect people dedicated to changing minds, laws, policies, and practices so that restraint, seclusion, suspension, expulsion, corporal punishment, and the school-to-prison pipeline are eliminated from schools across the nation. Our vision is safer schools for students, teachers, and staff. 

The fact that school discipline is discriminatory is well documented. We know disabled, Black, and brown students are disproportionately subjected to restraint, seclusion, suspension, expulsion, and corporal punishment. We know based on data from The United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), an effort that has been collecting biennial data since 1968. Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in which they analyzed CRDC discipline data from the 2013-14 school year. This report confirmed that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined “regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.” The impact of this pattern is that young, disabled, Black, and brown children are being pushed down the school-to-prison pipeline

Seclusion is happening in New Jersey Schools

You may have seen the recent article on NJ.com called “Inside the quiet rooms.” The article focused on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools throughout the state. If you read the article, you no doubt saw the references to Montclair Public Schools. A mother and a former Montclair educator were quoted in the story. Also quoted in the story was Montclair Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, who said, “Montclair School District follows applicable laws, Department of Education guidelines, and Montclair Board policies and regulations with respect to restraint and seclusion.” In New Jersey, the laws that govern restraint and seclusion state that restraint and seclusion should only be used “in an emergency in which the student is exhibiting behavior that places the student or others in immediate physical danger.” Let’s look at Federal Guidance from the United States Department of Education. It says, “restraint or seclusion should never be used except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others, and restraint and seclusion should be avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff.” 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.

The guidance is that restraint and seclusion should not be used unless the child’s behavior is life-threatening. We believe the criteria for use are intentionally high because the use of restraint and seclusion leads to significant physiological trauma, serious injury, and even death. However, despite the criteria, we have heard that children are restrained and secluded in Montclair Public Schools for noncompliance, disrespect, and minor behaviors. Considering that most children subjected to restraint and seclusion are very young elementary school students, you must ask yourself how often a 6-year-old poses an imminent danger of serious physical harm?

In 2016 the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights published a Dear Colleague Letter titled Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities. This guidance addressed the circumstances under which restraint or seclusion can violate Section 504 and Title II. The letter supports the previous guidance and indicates that restraint and seclusion should only be used in situations that involve imminent serious physical harm. Further, the letter suggests that OCR would likely not find the repeated use of restraint and seclusion a justified response where alternative methods could also prevent imminent danger to self or others. 

Looking at the data reported to the Office of Civil Rights, it would appear that Montclair Public Schools only reported ten physical restraints and thirteen seclusion instances in the 2017/18 reporting cycle. Unfortunately, based on discussions with parents and district educators, we have reason to believe that the data is inaccurate. We have heard allegations that district schools are not appropriately reporting on the use of restraint and seclusion. Reporting issues are not a problem unique to the Montclair School District. In 2019 the Government Accountability Office instructed the Department of Education to take immediate action to address inaccuracies in federal restraint and seclusion data. The investigation found that 70% of districts reported zero incidents. GAO found that not all incidents were reported, and nine districts with over 100,000 students reported zeros in error. One of those districts, Fairfax County, Virginia, was sued by several parents and organizations over their use of restraint and seclusion.

As members of the Board of Education, we realize that your information comes from the school leadership team. There are very few policies that you may review as a member of the Board of Education that could lead to the death of a child, but your restraint and seclusion policy is one such policy. You may have been led to believe that restraint and seclusion are necessary, but they are not. You may have been led to believe that limiting restraint and seclusion would increase costly out-of-school placements, but this is not true. You may have been led to believe that because your policy is consistent with New Jersey law, you can not do better, but this is not true. While state law provides the floor, you can do better. You can and should create a policy to eliminate the use of seclusion and dangerous forms of restraint. This kind of change is possible; several states, including Hawaii, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, Maryland, and Florida, prohibit the seclusion of children with disabilities in public schools. 

It is essential to be proactive. Frederick County, Maryland, was recently investigated by the Department of Justice. The investigation found that students with disabilities made up only 10.8% of students enrolled in the district. Every student in the district that was secluded was a student with a disability, as were most of those who were restrained. All reported instances in Montclair were children with disabilities. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “The district’s unlawful use of seclusion and restraint did not help students; it led to heightened distress and denied them access to a safe and positive learning environment.” The Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights are both actively involved in investigations of school districts around the nation. 

The Montclair Public School District can and must do better. Today, many schools across the nation are dependent on behaviorism to control and manipulate behavior. However, reward and consequence models of addressing behaviors are failing many children. The focus on surface behavior and outdated, compliance-based methods continue to fail our students who need help. Over the past forty years, there has been a tremendous increase in the knowledge base about the brain, nervous system, human development, and behavior. This knowledge includes understanding the role toxic stress and trauma (ACES) have on the structure of the developing brain and brain functioning. State-dependent functioning, the polyvagal theory, bottom-up versus top-down learning and control, and the differences between intentional behaviors and stress behaviors (flight, fight, freeze) are all part of this new understanding. 

It is time for Montclair Public Schools to shift to approaches that are relationship-based, trauma-informed, neuroscience-aligned, developmentally appropriate, individualized, biologically respectful, and collaborative to support all children in your school district. The solutions that will improve the educational system and student outcomes are the same solutions that will eliminate restraint and seclusion in your schools. The Montclair Public School District can and should do better for all your students, teachers, and staff. We appreciate your attention to the critical issue. I would be happy to speak with the Board of Education further if that would be helpful. 


Guy Stephens
Founder and Executive Director
Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Update (July 1st): We received a response from the President of the Board of Education Latifah Jannah, see below.

Good Afternoon. I hope all is well.

Thank you for your email and the information you provided.

Attached is district policy and regulation 5561 (documents provided: policy|regulation) governing physical restraint and seclusion to address this use within a specific program in the district. 

Policy 5561 was revised and developed with input and collaboration of a citizen most concerned with the use of seclusion spaces.

An investigation by the state was undertaken to determine if the district, within the confines of a specific behavioral program, Montclair Achievement Program, was following state law pertaining to the use of seclusion. The district was found to be complying with the use of seclusion for harm to self or others, only.

Families with children in the MAP as well as the trained behavioral staff have presented to the Board of Education on their experience and understanding of the possible use of seclusion with their children. At this time, the families of students in the MAP are not asking that seclusion be eliminated as one of the many behavioral tools staff are trained to use.

The District is in partnership with our Special Education Parents Advisory Council to collaboratively address the concerns of all Special Education students and Families. 

In conclusion, the district must meet the needs of our Special Education students. If it is deemed, we cannot, families can send their children to other schools outside of our district. These schools will also have restraint and seclusion without district oversight because the state allows it. It would seem to be in the best interest of all students who might be impacted by the use of restraint and seclusion to address this issue at the state level, moving forward. 

Stay safe. Be well.

Latifah Jannah
Board President

Update (July 1st): We responded to President Jannah’s email.

President Jannah,

I appreciate your response and concerns about the issue. While I understand that you believe your district is in compliance, I urge you to investigate further as we have heard reports to the contrary. 

Sadly parents are often led to believe that restraint and seclusion are necessary; they are not. Some programs even claim that they are therapeutic; they are not. Parents and educators are often afraid to share their concerns out of fear of retaliation, a valid concern. Placing a young, disabled child into a seclusion room is not therapeutic or calming. Children enter these spaces, and they scream and beat on the walls to get out. Perhaps after 15-20 minutes, the child goes silent; this is not calm. The child is not reflecting on their behaviors. Rather the child’s brain is going into a protective shutdown state. Some children even go into dissociative states. The use of seclusion can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and is likely to increase behaviors of concern. Seclusion is not an ethical practice, and rather it is akin to torture.   

We know the brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. We also know that traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. The amygdala detects threats in the environment and activates the “fight or flight” response. The use of restraint and seclusion can lead to changes in the brain. Children that have been traumatized may not feel safe and may enter a hypervigilant state. This can lead to distress behaviors when the child becomes overwhelmed or triggered. When demands are placed on the child that they are unable to meet, the situation may escalate. This may lead to fight, flight, or freeze behavior, which may lead to punishment and retraumatization, feeding the classroom trauma cycle.

Currently, there is legislation at the federal level related to the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. The Keeping All Students Act would ban the use of seclusion as well as prone and supine restraint. I assure you, at some point, federal legislation will pass. It is clearly a civil rights issue. According to data from the Office of Civil Rights, 80% of all restraints and 77% of seclusion are done to children with disabilities (in the case of your district it is 100%). The truth is that there are far better things we can do to support children. Holding onto restraint and seclusion as “tools” because it is how the district has always done things is not a reason to traumatize children.

As a mother, grandmother, a long-time resident, and the President of the Montclair Board of Education, I encourage you to take the time and dig into this issue. Schools and districts sometimes defend these practices, only to later be investigated by the federal government or sued by parents. It is far better to be proactive. There is a civil rights issue here, and your help is needed. We can and must do better!  

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou


Guy Stephens
Founder & Executive Director
Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint


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