Every day, Maryland schools lock up students for misbehaving, often keeping them in closet-sized, padded rooms monitored by an adult watching through a small window or by video camera.
Sometimes they lock up children as little as kindergarteners. And sometimes, those children, desperate and scared, try to harm themselves inside.
This long-standing practice of seclusion will be banned in the state’s public schools when a new state law takes effect on Friday. The practice will still be allowed in private schools funded with public tax dollars.
“Seclusion has no place in Maryland,” said Mohammed Choudhury, Maryland’s state schools superintendent and the first in that role to support a ban on the practice. He had hoped Maryland legislators would outlaw seclusion entirely this year, but said he will be back next year to advocate for further restrictions during the legislative session.
Despite its loopholes, the new law will cut the use of seclusion by more than half and make Maryland one of the few states in the nation to have banned its use in public schools, according to Choudhury. Other states that have banned seclusion include Hawaii, Florida, Georgia and Nevada.
Maryland students were secluded 19,713 times in the 2018-2019 school year, the last full year for which data is available before the pandemic. About 10,000 of those incidents occurred in the state’s public schools, with the remainder occurring in so-called nonpublic schools. When a school system doesn’t have the expertise to serve a student with special needs, the school system will pay a student’s tuition to attend a nonpublic school.
“It is a good step in the right direction, but I am pushing for a full ban on seclusion in non-public schools,” said Beth Ann Hancock, whose son was secluded dozens of times after being moved to a Montgomery County nonpublic school. She said her son’s behavior deteriorated once the school began secluding him, culminating in a day when officials suggested she watch a video of her son trying to stuff his sweatshirt down his throat while in seclusion.
She withdrew her son. She was alarmed not only at what had happened, but at what she saw as a failure of school staff to react with empathy and to realize seclusion was only making his behavior worse.
“It was a terrible experience. At one point, people used to think that it was therapeutic, but there is nothing therapeutic about it,” she said.
Under Maryland law, seclusion can be used for up to 30 minutes only when there is a threat of serious physical harm.
School staff usually restrain students by having them lie on the floor, with one person on either side. They are not permitted to put the student face down or to put them in a position that obstructs their airways, and can only use enough force to prevent the student from causing harm. A student can be restrained for up to 30 minutes. Advocates say school staff have regularly ignored the law, restraining students who pose no threat of imminent physical harm to anyone in the classroom.
Several parents said they believe secluding and physically restraining students — while widely accepted — are counterproductive and escalate a student’s behavior.
Students with behavior issues should be treated just as they would if they were lacking skills in learning, said Guy Stephens, a Calvert County parent who founded the Alliance Against Restraint and Seclusion. “It is not a matter of will. It is a matter of skill,” he said.
Schools don’t punish students for not being able to read, they help them build the skills they lack, Stephens added. “A lot of these kids developmentally don’t have the capacity to meet the demands that are being placed on them,” he said, adding that all kids want to do well.
Choudhury agreed. “There is no research basis for it. It does not do anything to improve a student’s well-being … It ultimately is a punishment-type of approach.”
Baltimore City Public Schools began phasing out the use of both seclusion and restraint in the 2018-2019 school year, immediately launching extensive training on techniques that de-escalate situations with students when they are upset, said Debra Y. Brooks, executive director of special education. When students are secluded, schools have found, it takes longer to calm them down, get them back to learning, and get them to begin to engage with their classmates than with other techniques.
In just the first year, city schools reported a steep drop in incidents of restraint, to 143 from 512. The surrounding systems of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, meanwhile, had more than 1,000 incidents of restraint.
Several other Maryland school systems had already banned seclusion before this year, including Prince George’s, Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Somerset. No school system has banned restraint.
The new law does put some constraints on the use of seclusion in nonpublic schools. Only a doctor, social worker, psychologist, counselor or registered nurse can use seclusion on a student in a nonpublic school, and if a student is secluded more than 10 times, the school must report it to the Maryland State Department of Education within four days.
The law allows restraining students, but it must be done by two adults holding a student down rather than one.
Education advocates had tried for years to stop the use of restraint and seclusion, but their efforts got a boost with Choudhury’s support and a federal investigation that found excessive use of restraint and seclusion in Frederick County schools before it was ordered stopped.
Choudhury, who took over as superintendent last July, said the state education department had long ignored the increasing use of seclusion and restraint in Frederick County.
Kristi Kimmel, a Frederick County mother, was one of the parents who reported high numbers of seclusions to the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Her son, Zeke, was secluded 206 times and restrained 71 times between September 2018 and March 2019.
Zeke, who has autism and is unable to speak, was 12 years old and weighed 76 pounds when the seclusion started. Kimmel said that when Zeke was unable to get a teacher’s attention or when he couldn’t do an assignment and needed a break, he would try to communicate by pinching a teacher. That got him sent to seclusion in a a 5-by-5-foot padded room. But his behavior only got worse. He began to injure himself. He would tap his face, punch his legs and bite himself, she said.
On Dec. 1, 2021, Frederick County agreed to a settlement with the DOJ and the U.S. attorney’s office after a finding that the county had discriminated against students with disabilities with its use of restraint and seclusion.
After one month of intensive inpatient therapy and then intensive work at Kennedy Krieger, Kimmel said her son is now fine at a school where restraint and seclusion are not used.
“He is back to being happy. He wants to go back to school,” she said.
Still, he will become agitated when she drives near his old school, banging his head against the car windows. She hopes the trauma he suffered will not be long-lasting.
Hancock also took her son out of school. Now 17, he is successful in a school that doesn’t use seclusion or restraint. Seclusion has been disproportionately used on students of color, according to Maryland State Department of Education statistics.
Parents are concerned that school systems will skirt the law to continue the use of seclusion. For instance, teachers might “put their foot in a door and say it wasn’t shut” or stand in a doorway and block a child from leaving, Stephens said. “It is important we get strong guidance to our schools” from the state Department of Education, he said.
The new law, sponsored by Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing Baltimore County, doesn’t apply to instances where a student has caused trouble and is asked to go sit in an empty classroom. If a student is not locked in a room, Ebersole said, it is not seclusion.
Parents’ advocates say school officials have not always been forthright about when their children have been restrained or secluded, despite rules saying incidents must be reported to both the parents and the state.
The mother of a Harford County public school kindergartner said school officials weren’t acknowledging that they were restraining and secluding her child this year. After witnesses reported seeing her son being restrained, she asked to see videotapes and found that he was being dragged down a hallway and secluded. Although he’d never had behavior issues in day care and didn’t have problems at home, his behavior grew worse at school.
She asked not to have her name used because she fears the school system will retaliate.
Guy and Choudhury said school systems now using seclusion will have to quickly give staff training to be able to use other safe techniques to calm children down.
In Baltimore County schools, Kathy Pierandozzi, executive director of special education, said the county has been offering training to staff so they can understand the distinction between what is an imminent threat and what isn’t. In addition, the county is rolling out new training this summer to help school staff use techniques other than seclusion to calm children down.
Despite the limitations of the law, Leslie Margolis, managing attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said this year’s progress was remarkable. “We have never had a superintendent sit at the same table and testify” on behalf of a bill to end seclusion, she said. “These are issues that we have been working on for a long time. I am thrilled we got a prohibition on seclusion in the public schools.”