By the beginning of next school year, the Anchorage School District says it intends to completely end its practice of locking away students with behavioral issues.
The practice is called “seclusion” in education policy. That, and the practice of physical restraint, were the subjects of a two-year investigation of the U.S. Department of Justice that led up to a legal settlement announced Thursday. The settlement commits the district to a three-year plan to eliminate seclusion and improve its practices around restraint.
The Department of Justice announced the settlement in a news release on its website this morning.
It said the school district “repeatedly and inappropriately secluded and restrained students with disabilities,” in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The practices are supposed to be limited to emergency situations, but the Justice Department said the district used them “to address noncompliant student behavior, resulting in students missing large amounts of instructional time.”
“When schools use seclusion and improper restraints as the default method of managing the behavior of students with disabilities, they violate the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
To reach that conclusion, federal investigators reviewed policies, procedures, incident reports, and interviewed district employees. Anchorage Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said Anchorage was one of more than 40 school districts across the country that the Justice Department investigated. It’s announced at least five other similar settlements since 2017.
“The vision is to move in a new direction and to move away from the practices of seclusion, and to dramatically reform restraints,” Bryantt said during a news conference Thursday about the settlement. “So we need to prioritize investing in training, and whatever it takes to ensure that staff understand what their new tools in their toolbox will be to help students in distress.”
The Justice Department said some Anchorage students subjected to seclusion engaged in self-harm and expressed suicidal ideation.
Many of the reforms are aimed at four specific schools: Kasuun Elementary, Lake Hood Elementary, William Tyson Elementary and the Whaley School. These schools all have programs for students with special needs and challenging behavioral issues.
A fifth school, Baxter Elementary, also had one of these programs prone to the problematic practices during the period investigators looked at, but it has since ended.
In a memo, an attorney for the school district noted that these schools used seclusion so often that they were national outliers in the data.
Bryantt said the district denies that it discriminates, but agrees that its practices need to change.
“The district denies and refutes the claim that ASD was discriminating on the basis of disability,” he said. “But regardless, we do completely agree with the DOJ that there are better alternatives to seclusion and better ways to implement restraint than was happening in the district for many years.”
Other commitments in the settlement include dismantling seclusion rooms, staff training on other ways to manage students’ behavior, and creating a new staff position responsible for implementing, documenting and monitoring compliance with the settlement agreement.
District officials said that Alison Lovelace has already been hired for the new position of assistant director of intensive behavior supports. Her professional background is in special education, mental health and behavior.
“We are committed to making the changes,” Bryantt said. “We will end the use of seclusion. We will reform the use of restraint. We will do better for our students.”