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Impact of School Seclusion: Family Stories

As part of the Educational Opportunities Section’s ongoing efforts to combat improper seclusion of students with disabilities in schools, the Section has interviewed parents and students about their personal experiences involving seclusion. These students and their families have bravely shared heartbreaking stories as part of our comprehensive investigations. With their permission, we have compiled some of these stories below. As the Section continues its work in this space, we expect more stories will be added. You are welcome to check back regularly to learn about these experiences directly from the affected families. Names have been changed to pseudonyms to protect privacy.

Pseudonym - Thomas

After the school Thomas attended started secluding and restraining him, he lost the ability to communicate functionally. His mom observed that he longer wanted physical contact. “When we'd go to touch him, he would flinch.”

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) found that Frederick County Public Schools repeatedly improperly secluded and restrained students as young as five years in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Grace is the mother of one of the students in the school district. Her son, Thomas has autism and is non-verbal with a sensory processing disorder. Grace describes Thomas as inquisitive and loving. “[Thomas] got a great sense of humor. He's active; he loves swimming, hiking, jumping, and walking with our dogs.”

Since before Kindergarten, Thomas attended school full-time, and over the years, Grace saw his verbal communication improve. “We worked very hard to get verbal communication from him … [at one time] there were twenty-plus words that he used regularly.”

But once the school Thomas attended started secluding and restraining him, that progress stopped, and he lost all ability to communicate functionally.  Grace observed a big change in Thomas’ personality. “He became aggressive and was even destructive to property. He was breaking windows.” He also became withdrawn and began to isolate himself. “[Thomas] didn't want contact with us. When we'd go to touch him, he would flinch.”

Grace decided to act. She met with Thomas’ school to tell them of the distress he felt at home, but the school ignored her concerns. The school told her to “trust [their] process” because they've “been doing this for years.” She didn't feel heard until the lawyers and experts in the Civil Rights Division began to review the restraint and seclusion incidents that had become a common practice in the school district.

Even though state law and the school district's own policies limited the use of seclusion and restraint to “emergency situations,” DOJ discovered that from the 2017 to 2020 school years, all students who were secluded and 99% of students who were restrained were students with disabilities, even though students with disabilities make up only 11% of the total enrolled students. 

“The DOJ, and all the people I worked with … really listened and were compassionate and caring. That's what I needed at that time [to be told], ‘look, you're not wrong in this, and I'm sorry it's happened.’ The DOJ made me feel my voice was heard. And my voice was Thomas’ voice because he doesn't have one.”

Grace tells others who suspect their loved ones are being denied a safe and positive learning environment to “listen to that inner voice” and “keep showing up.” She added, “Get someone to look at the information you have … when you have an advocate on your side, they will be more willing to listen. All kids should feel safe when going to school, and we as parents entrust that they are safe.” 

Pseudonym - Athena

After Athena was secluded, she didn’t want to go to school anymore.  She called the seclusion room the “dungeon” and refused to attend church because it was right next to her school.

It took seven years for Athena to regain the educational opportunities taken away from her by the repeated seclusions that started when she was only five years old.  The trauma remains, but she and her family take pride in having protected other students from suffering the same harms by filing a complaint that helped lead to a Civil Rights Division investigation and, ultimately, an end to seclusion in the North Gibson public schools.  Her grandmother is grateful that Athena has found an ongoing purpose in these events — to continue the fight against harmful seclusion practices — and that “she is strong enough to handle it.”

Before she was secluded, Athena was a “happy-go-lucky” kid, mature for her age.  She could be frustrated easily, but her pre-school took care of her and helped her manage her behavior. 

She started kindergarten and struggled in a big classroom with so many children.  Rather than provide her with interventions and supports, the district moved her to a special classroom for students with behavioral disabilities and told her family she would “grow out of it.”  When she struggled with her behavior, the school staff repeatedly secluded her.  Her family was told that she was being placed in “time out,” and her grandmother assumed it was the same as was used at her pre-school, a place in the classroom where she could go and calm down, never imagining “that she was being locked in a closet.” 

Athena was scared to tell her family what was happening to her.  She didn’t want to go to school and would start crying when made to attend.  She called the seclusion room the “dungeon.”  She refused to attend church because it was right next to her school, and she stopped trusting adults.  She got really upset when watching the movie “Dumbo” because the mother elephant was put in a cage. 

When her family learned what really was happening to Athena, and the school district didn’t address their concerns, they pulled Athena out of school.   But they were also determined to right the wrong Athena had suffered by filing a complaint that helped lead to the 2020 Civil Rights Division settlement agreement that ended the use of seclusion, limited the use of restraint to true emergencies, and required the district to provide interventions and supports for students like Athena.  Athena’s grandmother says she felt “blessed” when the Civil Rights Division contacted her to hear more about what happened to Athena   It meant so much to the family, her grandmother said, that “someone listened.” 

During the five years after she left North Gibson, Athena was first on homebound instruction and later homeschooled.  In fall of 2022, she returned to school for the 7th grade in a different school district.  She was placed in general education classes with supports in place for when she needed them.  She got straight “As” her first semester back.  She is an accomplished archer, winning honors in local tournaments and hoping to qualify for the state competition.  One day, she wants to join the Marines. 

Athena has another important goal.  She wants to end seclusion in Indiana and is working with an advocacy group to plan a trip to the State capital to convey that message to the people who can make that happen.  Her advice to students who are subject to seclusion is not to be scared and to tell someone.  Her grandmother says that parents whose children experience what Athena did should not accept that treatment and should instead fight for their children.  Her grandmother urges other families to find advocates to help, noting that for her, the silver lining to Athena’s terrible experience was that the Civil Rights Division stepped in and acted. 

Updated November 16, 2023