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DOJ: Investigation into Frederick Co. Public Schools uncovers thousands of incidents of seclusion, restraint against students with disabilities

The investigation into the school district began in October 2020 and uncovered thousands of incidents of seclusion and restraint in just two and a half school years.

FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — The Frederick County Public School District will stop using what the United States Attorney's Office says is a discriminatory punishment against students with disabilities as part of a settlement with the Attorney's Office and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. 

According to a press release from the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, public schools in Frederick County will no longer use seclusion rooms and restraints against students with disabilities.

Officials say employees within the school district "unnecessarily and repeatedly" secluded and restrained students, violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some of the students were as young as five. 

“Every child should feel safe and protected while in school.  The use of seclusion rooms and unjustified physical restraints on young people, particularly those with disabilities, falls painfully short of a school district’s responsibility to support the safety, health, and educational needs of its students," said U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron. "Students with disabilities deserve a school environment rooted in positive, preventive, and supportive classroom strategies."

The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office says the investigation into the school district began in October 2020 and uncovered thousands of incidents of seclusion and restraint in just two and a half school years. 

Students with disabilities only make up 10.8% of the students enrolled in the district, according to the attorney's office, and every single student in the district that faced seclusion was a student with disabilities. All but one of the students that were restrained also were students with disabilities. 

89% of the cases occurred at just 3 schools: Lewistown Elementary, Spring Ridge Elementary and The Rock Creek school - a school that investigators say exclusively serves students "with severe intellectual, physical, emotional, hearing, visual, and learning disabilities."

"These were egregious," said Attorney Barron, "Experts will tell you there's any number of other options and alternatives before you get to any kind of restraint or seclusion. And those alternatives are humane."

According to COMAR - Code of Maryland Regulations on Restrictions and Seclusion, the state allows the use of restraints or seclusions but only in emergencies or to protect the student and others.

The DOJ report indicates school leaders not only violated state and federal law but their own policy.

The attorney's office claims the district would routinely use seclusion and restraint in non-emergency situations instead of using "appropriate individualized behavior interventions tailored to individual students’ needs." 

The investigation uncovered the practices that often intensified students' distress. Some of the students would hurt themselves and show other signs of trauma while being secluded, according to the DOJ. 

“We cannot stand by and watch schools put children with disabilities in isolation thousands of times and call it public education," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. "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."

Frederick County is now required to end the use of seclusion and overhaul the district's restraint practice and train staff on the appropriate behavioral interventions for students with disabilities.

“We appreciate Frederick County Public School District’s cooperation in the investigation and are pleased that the District has agreed to take comprehensive steps to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal educational opportunities,” Barron said.

The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office explained that the school district has fully cooperated during the investigation. The settlement agreement will require the district to ensure the new practices do not discriminate against students with disabilities. The new policies must follow specific guidelines, such as:

  • Prohibit the use of seclusion;
  • Report all instances of restraint and evaluate whether they were justified;
  • Designate trained staff to collect and analyze restraint data and oversee the creation of appropriate behavior intervention plans;
  • Deliver appropriate training and resources to help schools implement the agreement;
  • Design and implement procedures for handling complaints about restraint;
  • offer compensatory education services to students with disabilities who were subjected to the district’s discriminatory practices; and
  • Hire an administrator to supervise school-based staff and ensure the district’s compliance with the agreement and Title II of the ADA.

A spokesperson for Frederick County Public Schools sent WUSA9 a statement saying that staff are using de-escalation and restorative practices and the agreement aligns with the vision and work that FCPS has already begun.

The entire statement reads: 

After several months of working collaboratively with Department of Justice (DOJ) representatives on an investigation into the seclusion and restraint practices used by FCPS, today we finalized an agreement. The agreement identifies areas for process improvement and highlights the areas where FCPS has already begun transitioning our practices to ensure they are aligned with best practices and the requirements outlined in the agreement.

Again, the agreement aligns with the vision and work that FCPS has already begun. Over the past few years, we have been increasing the use of restorative practices across the district. Additionally, we provide additional professional training for staff who frequently use de-escalation strategies with students in crisis situations. We know that this type of training is critically important for all instructional staff as we respond to the increased need for trauma informed practices in our schools.

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