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Seclusion Rooms: It’s Time to Ban their Irresponsible Use

by Melissa Mason

March 1, 2022

What is a Seclusion Room?

This padded, windowless cell, with no bathroom, food, water, or means of communication in case of distress is a “seclusion room.” It is also called a “blue room,” “calming space” or “storage room.” These rooms have been a part of NHCS building designs since 2009. “Seclusion” is meant to be used only to prevent students causing imminent harm to themselves or others. As a candidate for the New Hanover County Board of Elections, I have grave concerns about this practice.

This is a photo of an actual NHCS seclusion room from a 2020 New Hanover County Schools presentation on the Greenblatt Act, which guides how public schools can use seclusion and restraint.

This video presents the danger that seclusion rooms and untrained educators pose to our children.

A Shocking Number: 2056 Seclusions Across Two Years

According to DPI statistics, New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) had 2,056 documented uses of seclusion rooms over the last two years.* As New Hanover County school board member Judy Justice puts it, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Tunnel Vision on Compliance Hurts NHCS Students

Does Compliance Equal Care?

When Julie Varnam, Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, made her report on the use of seclusion rooms to the Board of Education on Jan 4, 2022, Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill only seemed interested in the answer to one question: “are we in compliance?”

After Varnam confirmed NHCS was in compliance with state law and has even stricter local standards, she was congratulated.

Here is the problem with the current Board of Education: the code is more important than the child. As long as the BOE can report that they’re “in compliance,” they don’t ask any further questions about the policy. But don’t they have to answer these questions:

  • Is the policy working?
  • Is the policy good for children?

Let’s Put Children First, Not the Bureaucrats

When they don’t demand answers to these questions, BOE meetings look like exercises in CYA, which is exactly what the Jan 4 hearing seemed to be. Real accountability, which is what I want to bring to the board, would look very different. It would reflect concern for the children first.

Assistant Superintendent Varnam Blames other Districts for NHCS’ Poor Numbers

When Judy Justice cited a report, based on DPI statistics, that NHCS accounted for almost half of documented seclusions in the state, Varnam questioned the statistics, implying that other districts were under-reporting their seclusions.

Let’s put this stunning response in perspective: there are about 50.9 million students in North Carolina public schools. There are about 26 thousand students in NHCS schools. Our students make up 0.051% of the student population, yet our schools account for about 50% of all reported seclusions across the entire state of North Carolina.

Did I hear that right? Is Varnam saying we’re actually outperforming the rest of the state? 2056 seclusions proves we’re better at reporting?

And is Kraybill OK with this because it shows “compliance”?

Student Safety Comes First

In my world, student safety comes before compliance. If the current BOE or the office of the Superintendent put conscience first, they might have considered what professionals in the mental health field have to say about a practice that originated in mental institutions. I don’t know why a practice that was designed for mental institutions was brought into schools in the first place, but let’s put that to the side for now.

A Mental Health Perspective on Seclusion Rooms

Mental Health America, a prominent mental health advocacy group, says this about seclusion:

Seclusion and restraints have no therapeutic value, cause human suffering, and frequently result in severe emotional and physical harm, and even death. Therefore, as a matter of fundamental policy, Mental Health America (MHA) urges abolition of the use of seclusion…

US Department of Education Questions Use of Seclusion Rooms

Or the BOE might have considered what the US Department of Education said, all the way back in 2012, in a report I referred to in my testimony at the March 1, 2022 BOE meeting:

There continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.

Why Are We Still Using Seclusion Rooms?

So why are we still using them? Why are we using them so much? And why is the current county leadership, including the BOE and the Superintendent’s Office satisfied with being compliant with a set of standards that applies to a dangerous and potentially unjustifiable practice?

What good is meeting the standard if the standard is unjust and outrageous? If every seclusion room in NHCS is up to code, that is, at least 6x6ft, then that is still below the humanitarian standard set for prison cells is the US, which is 6x8ft.

What kind of standard is that for our kids?

Dr Foust Says A Bad Tool is Better Than No Tool

Superintendent Dr. Foust also avoids the safety question:

New Hanover County Schools will continuously seek and adopt the absolute best practices and tools that support our students, including those with special needs. We must do so thoughtfully, especially regarding seclusion, taking into consideration the students, staff, and families most impacted by changes to existing policies and Individualized Education Programs.

As reported by WHQR, a spokesperson clarified what this circular justification of a bad policy actually means: the Superintendent’s office will not “strip the tool from staff if it’s necessary without a replacement.”

What kind of standard is that? We have to keep using a bad tool until we find a replacement? And what about the damage that will be done in the meantime?

Seclusion Rooms Kill

This is the kind of question that many parents, like Don and Tina King, will be left to ask themselves. Their 13 year-old son, Jonathan, hanged himself in a seclusion room in Georgia in 2004.

Another question is, when will there be accountability for the harm done by this practice? Sandy Eyles, whose grievance against CFCI for improperly secluding her 7 year-old led to the suspension of the practice at CFCI, has found that so far, the answer is “never.”**

Though CFCI is not part of NHCS , the old “compliance” excuse offered by administrators in that system sounds all too familiar, “the appropriate steps have been taken to review the concerns mentioned. We can provide no further comment at this time.”

Student Safety Is Deeply Personal to Me

Teachers and staff have to avoid crisis in the classroom. They have to provide educational opportunities to disabled children which were not offered in earlier generations. They have to protect themselves. And they have to protect students who may be violent. It’s no simple task.

As a teacher and a mother with a son suffering from ADHD, no one understands that better than I do. I have compassion for everyone involved who’s trying to solve the issue. And since DPI statistics show that seclusion is used overwhelmingly on students with disabilities, I am profoundly invested in this topic.

Seclusion and restraint data in NHCS

But the more I dig into the history and record of the practice of seclusion, the more disturbed I become. I don’t think I have reached my final position on whether there is any justification for the use of seclusion rooms in an educational setting. As I often say, I believe in doing my own research, and there is more for me to do.

Where I Stand on Seclusion Room Policy as a New Hanover Board of Education Candidate

What I know for sure, is that if NHCS does practice seclusion, it must adhere to the 15 principles set out by the US Department of Education, which I have linked to here. This document is from the Crisis Prevention Institute. It shows how CPI’s practices are in alignment with the Department of Education principles.

Is NHCS Seclusion Room Compliance a Sham?

Well, the good news is that both Mrs. Varnam and Mrs. Kraybill agree with me. CPI provides the training to NHCS staff that prepares them to avoid, and if necessary, deal with classroom crises. That means NHCS standards for the use of seclusion are actually higher than the state standards set forth in the Greenblatt Act. By that standard seclusion can only be used in the following circumstances:

  • As reasonably needed to respond to a person in control of a weapon or
    other dangerous object.
  • As reasonably needed to maintain order or prevent or break up a fight.
  • As reasonably needed for self-defense.
  • As reasonably needed when a student’s behavior poses a threat of imminent physical harm to self or others or imminent substantial destruction of school or another person’s property.
  • When used as specified in the student’s IEP, Section 504 plan, or behavior intervention plan.

What About All of Those Seclusions?

If NHCS is really using a higher standard than the rest of the state, how do we account for 2,056 seclusions in two years?

Should we believe that every one of those incidents involved the threat of imminent physical harm?

What About the 15 Principles?

Should we believe that NHCS has adhered to principle number 1?

Principle number 1: Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion.

Should we believe NHCS is adhering to principle number 6?

Principle number 6: Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline, as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.

Are NHCS teachers using seclusion rooms for discipline and convenience?

As child advocate and seclusion opponent Guy Stephens said, “If you build it, you will use it.”

Should we believe NHCS is adhering to principle number 8?

Principle number 8: The use of restraint or seclusion, particularly when there is repeated use for an individual child, multiple uses within the same classroom, or multiple uses by the same individual, should trigger a review and, if appropriate, revision of strategies currently in place to address dangerous behavior; if positive behavioral strategies are not in place, staff should consider developing them.

According to Mrs. Varnam, there is a fully compliant investigation process. So with 2,056 seclusions in two years, how many investigations have there been?

An Even More Shocking Figure: Zero Investigations in NHCS

That’s right. 2,056 seclusions, 0 investigations.

Dr. Sherri Pinto, NHCS Dropout Prevention Supervisor, told WHQR,

“I’ve been in this job in this role since 2017. And literally, I have only conducted three investigations. And that was very early in my role.”

In the last two years there have been zero.

WHQR also reports that Dr. Pinto doesn’t know where the reports come from, or how they get to her. I think this probably means she doesn’t know where they get stopped, either.

Self-Reporting is Not Accountability!

Fortunately, Mrs. Varnam explains the situation in her testimony. I had to listen to it a few times to understand it, so you may want to give this bit another listen.

The CPI trainer is an internal staff member at NHCS schools. That staff member trains all staff in CPI standards. That includes how to administer seclusion.

That staff member is also responsible for reviewing and investigating his own trainees. But since the CPI trainer is also a staff member, his performance is evaluated based on the performance of his trainees.

So to initiate an investigation into his own trainees, he would have to report to NHCS on his own failures.

Self-reporting is not accountability!

Whew! I know this was a long post, but thank you for taking the time to read it all. Remember, if we stay focused and stick together, we will make New Hanover County Schools safe, healthy, and educational for our children again!

If you have the time, volunteer for my campaign. If you can donate, please donate.

And most of all, reach out to me with your comments, concerns and suggestions, and share my content with people who share our concerns. 

You can learn more about seclusion room use in New Hanover County schools at this recently published article

I Will Hold New Hanover Schools Accountable

If elected, I would initiate an immediate investigation into the Superintendent’s Office, and the total lack of investigations into seclusion incidents.

There is no way there have been 2,056 seclusions in 2 years, and the schools, staff, and students most involved have not been dealt with in some way. The Department of Education Standards demand this, and CPI requires it.

When I find out who is responsible for this failure in accountability, I will do everything in my power to have those people removed from office.


*”During the 2018-2019 school year there were 908 documented seclusions, 2019-2020 there were 751, and 2020-2021 there were 397, which included the shutdown.” https://www.whqr.org/local/2022-01-17/deep-dive-nhcss-use-of-seclusion-rooms-far-exceeds-other-districts-and-oversight-policy-leaves-many-with-questions
**Her daughter was secluded when an anxiety attack led her to refuse to enter her classroom. This clearly does not meet standards of Rule 4302, and I’m willing to bet it didn’t help the girl’s anxiety.

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