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Watchdog group questions school 'safe rooms' use

Posted: October 8, 2013 - 12:01am

ANCHORAGE — Children at a school for students with behavioral disorders are being secluded in “safe rooms” far too often, according to a state watchdog group that investigated the practice.

The Disability Law Center made public a September report that concluded student seclusion and restraint at Mt. Iliamna Elementary School constituted neglect, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

“We’re talking about 60 kids (being put in the safe room) over 850 times in a school year,” law center investigator Ron Cowan said. “That’s an awful lot of times kids are being put in restraint or seclusion.”

The law center’s investigation into the school started with some phone calls from parents who said their children were being sent to the safe room almost daily. The law center is an independent nonprofit that is the designated agency for Alaska to act as the protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities.

An initial report released last year elicited no immediate response from the school district. Cowan undertook an investigation that counted 879 instances where students were put in a safe room, which is empty and can be locked.

A school district investigation into the practice at Mt. Iliamna is underway, according to Linda Carlson, the assistant superintendent of instructional support for the district.

Carlson said students go to the school because they haven’t been able to successfully function in a regular neighborhood school population or special education classroom.

Students are not supposed to be there permanently, although some can end up there for years. To transition back to neighborhood schools, students need one academic quarter of nonviolent behavior, program coordinator Kelly Scott said.

School personnel have been bitten, punched, kicked and even had jaws dislocated by students.

“We know that’s a risk,” Scott said. “But we love working with these kids. We really want to help them.”

Reaction among parents to the law center report has been mixed, with some saying the school and district must be held accountable and others saying the school has helped their children.

BreeAnn Davis said she and her husband withdrew their son from the school at the end of the last school year.

“He was spending his entire day in a safe room or a classroom by himself,” Davis said.

Debbi Brooks’ son attended the school for most of his elementary school history, and he often ended up in the safe room, she said. Brooks said there were many good things about this school, but last year, things did seem more out of control than usual.

The law center report didn’t take into account some of the realities of a school dealing with students who act out violently, Brooks said.

“There isn’t an alternative,” she said. “You don’t let a kid trash your room or hurt his peers.”

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