Patti Bacchus: Government action needed to stop schools from restraining and secluding kids with special needs

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      This sounds like something from a dark past: locking children with disabilities in closets or small, locked rooms for hours at a time, or tying them to chairs, holding them face down on the floor, or even forcing one into a Rubbermaid bin.

      Except it’s happening in the here and now.

      According to Inclusion B.C., a group that advocates for kids with special needs, such children are still being restrained and secluded with shocking regularity in B.C. public schools.

      It needs to stop.

      In a damning and explicit report titled Stop Hurting Kids II, Inclusion B.C. reports the alarming results of a 2017 survey completed by 170 self-identified parents and guardians of students who were restrained or secluded during the 2016/17 school year.


      The report says students with special needs are being injured and traumatized by “abusive, inappropriate and outdated practices” in B.C. public schools because of a lack of systemic oversight, unclear standards, acceptance of aversive practices, and inadequate supports and training” for staff.

      It’s calling on the B.C. Ministry of Education for clear leadership and a prohibition of restraining and secluding students in all but “very limited and specific situations”. It says that any time a student is restrained or placed in a seclusion room, there must be incident-reporting that’s tracked at the school-district and ministry levels.

      The report is a follow-up to a similar one that Inclusion B.C. produced in 2013 that made similar recommendations that were largely ignored by the previous B.C. Liberal government.  

      The 2013 Inclusion B.C. report called for provincial legislation, policies, and reporting requirements to stop the misuse of seclusion in schools and for more staff training on the use of positive-behavior supports and conflict-de-escalation techniques.

      Government reaction to the 2013 report was woefully inadequate. In 2015, it released voluntary provincial guidelines to help school boards develop restraint-and-seclusion policy and procedures. At the time, only 10 of B.C.'s 60 school boards had policies and procedures in place. According to Inclusion B.C.’s research, as of 2017, only 19 school districts had adopted seclusion-and-restraint policies and there still aren’t any tracking and reporting processes in place. That’s appalling.

      The Vancouver experience

      In 2009, when I was a fairly new school trustee and chair of the Vancouver School Board (VSB), I was shocked to learn the VSB had three “time out” rooms that were, as far as I could tell, windowless former utility closets. A respected child advocate, Barb Laird, complained to the board and asked us to get rid of them.

      It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but there was strong pushback from VSB staff. I went out and visited the three schools that were using the seclusion rooms at the time—Renfrew, Waverley, and Norquay. I didn’t like what I saw, but staff insisted the doors to the rooms were never closed when students were in them and that a staff person (a teacher or a support worker) always stood in the doorway and helped the child calm down.

      A principal who showed me one of the rooms had tears in her eyes as she explained how hurt staff were by allegations that putting kids in these rooms was abuse. I had no doubt the staff were caring, kind, compassionate professionals, and I could understand their response, but the rooms alarmed me nonetheless.

      Humans are fallible, and people have bad days, and things can go awry when regular staff are absent and others with less training or familiarity with students or programs fill in. Could I guarantee no child would ever be put in one of those rooms with the door closed? I could not.

      I lost a lot of sleep over how we could ensure students’ safety and well-being without undermining the staff who devote their careers to working with students with unique and challenging needs and behaviours. It’s one thing to sit in a boardroom and talk about what’s best for kids, but it’s another to work with those kids day in and day out.

      After a lot of difficult discussions, we landed on an imperfect compromise. The rooms would stay and be used only as last resorts and under strict protocols (the doors could not ever be closed on a child alone), and every time they were used it would need to be reported to the district. It was a similar plan to what Inclusion B.C. is calling for now.


      The problem is I haven’t seen one of those reports in years and I don’t know if there was ever follow-through. VSB managers come and go, and each have different priorities and overwhelming workloads. The cracks in the system are many. Dangerously many.  

      School trustees also come and go, and I doubt any of the current trustees have asked for a report of this or last year’s use of seclusion rooms, if they’re still used at all. If they are being used, someone should be tracking when they’re used and why and by whom, and reviewing if parents have been informed on every occasion.

      Guidelines aren’t enough—there need to be enforced rules

      My experience on the VSB taught me that if it isn’t a provincial reporting requirement and it isn’t enforced, it won’t happen consistently and may not happen at all. That’s not good enough when it comes to the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable kids.

      Inclusion B.C. says protecting children must be the rule, not the guideline. They’re absolutely right. Leaving it to school boards pits trustees against their own staff, with vulnerable kids and their parents caught in the middle. We need provincial leadership on this.

      The Inclusion B.C. report calls for a three-pronged approach to be implemented via a ministerial order by Education Minister Rob Fleming:

      1. A provincial prohibition on the use of restraint and seclusion, except in very limited and specific situations. 2. Mandatory reporting to parents, school boards, and the ministry every time a restraint or seclusion is used, and an automatic review to ensure positive-behaviour-support plans and training are in place to prevent the need for such measures. 3. Provincial funding to support the use of positive-behaviour-support programs, additional resource-teacher and educational-assistant positions, and additional targeted training budgets.

      They also recommend the province develop resources and professional-development programs on inclusive practices and positive-behaviour support, along with additional staff time for collaboration, mentoring, and planning. Finally, they’re calling for new university-curriculum requirements for teacher education on restraint, seclusion, and positive alternatives.

      Fleming should move swiftly and decisively to accept and implement the recommendations, and he seems to be heading in that direction, for the most part. I’m a bit concerned that he seems to be offloading the responsibility to school boards again, saying only that school districts must read Inclusion B.C.’s  report, review provincial guidelines, and “have local policies and clear standards in place to address these practices by the end of the year”.

      In a written statement ministry staff forwarded to me, Fleming says he “expects” that district policies will include a reporting component and the ministry will work with districts to review all these policies.

      That’s not good enough. He needs to require regular reporting to his ministry in a standard format. Reports should be publicly available on the ministry’s website alongside other student data. This can be done without identifying individual students and will ensure transparency.

      He also needs to commit to providing staff with training opportunities and time for collaboration, particularly for those working with students with challenging behaviours. School districts should be required to have a staff triage system in place so substitute teachers and on-call support workers are not assigned to classrooms with students with severe behaviour challenges without being familiar with their safety and behaviour plans.

      Why this matters

      According to inclusion B.C., “Too many B.C. students are still being injured and traumatized by abusive, inappropriate and outdated practices.”

      Without strong, consistent oversight, children will continue to be subjected to seclusion and restraint, and that comes with consequences for those on the receiving end of it and those who witness it.

      Parents who responded to Inclusion B.C.’s 2017 survey reported that their kids suffered a range of injuries from seclusion and restraint, including trauma, feelings that they are “bad”, self-hatred, worsening behavior at home, and development of anxiety about being alone.

      When it comes to restraint, Inclusion B.C. says “the school administrator was reported as the individual most commonly participating or aware of the restraint, followed by the teaching assistant, special education teachers, resource teacher and classroom teacher”. This is a clear indication that training in positive-behaviour support and violence-free alternatives needs to be provided to all these groups.

      Most reports of seclusion involved children between five and eight, including 25 cases where a student was secluded behind a locked door. According to the survey responses, nine students were secluded for periods of more than three hours, and some were secluded on a daily basis, for most of the day.

      Although horrible for the kids subjected to that, seeing classmates held down or locked in rooms affects fellow students as well. It sends a terrible message about how we treat people with disabilities and can create fear that it will happen to them.

      There’s no need for 60 school districts to write 60 different policies. The ministry needs to make some clear and firm rules and school districts must be required to follow them and do regular reporting.

      Doing anything less will leave too many cracks in the system and leave some of B.C.’s most vulnerable kids at risk of continuing to be unnecessarily restrained or locked up.

      Inclusion B.C. is doing an important service by continuing to raise awareness of what’s happening in B.C. schools to vulnerable kids. Without their persistent advocacy work, most people won’t know this stuff still goes on and parents would feel even more alone in standing up for their kids. They deserve a huge thank-you from all of us.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.