Almost two dozen parents of children with special needs gathered at the ALLY Advocacy Center at Paxton Campus in Leesburg on Monday night to share stories of isolation and alleged retaliation at the hands of school staff—and to plan their next steps.
They told stories of visiting schools to find their children had been shut into tiny, sparsely furnished spaces all alone for hours at a time; and of children traumatized and set back in their learning by the experience. Some parents said when they complained about the treatment, they were reported to Child Protective Services.
Alex Erkiletian, a father of a child with Asperger Syndrome, said he discovered his son had been shut into a small “chill room” or “cool-down room” at Frederick Douglass Elementary School for hours at a time. He later saw that room.
“There’s no carpet, there’s nothing on the walls, cinder block and linoleum floor, and on three separate occasions—nobody told me, I had to find out—he was put in this room for in excess of five hours,” Erkiletian said. “I didn’t even know this room existed.”
Jennifer Vernon, who has a son at Stone Hill Middle School, said her son has seen the inside of a chill room, too. She said he struggles with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and anxiety.
“It happened multiple times,” Vernon said. “We don’t actually know how many times he was put into that room, because there are no incident reports. There was no documentation. My son was never seen by the health clinic.”
Erkiletian has since pulled his son out of Loudoun County Public Schools. He said he believes principals and teachers “had very good intentions” but were not given the right resources by school administration.
“I now homeschool him,” Erkiletian said. “I brought him up from third-grade level math up to his grade, fifth-grade level, since September.”
His son now loves learning, he said.
Erkiletian met with school administrators last February about his son and recorded the conversation. He said Loudoun County Public Schools Behavior Specialist Alison Lyons, his son’s former teacher, an assistant principal and a guidance counselor were in the meeting with him.
In that meeting, he was told his son was put in that room because he was screaming and using vulgar language. Erkiletian asked school staff about how his son had been treated, and tried to get an answer to how often his son has been in the chill room. He was told records are not kept.
“I picked him up on Monday and I saw an empty room and him laying on a hard linoleum floor crying,” Erkiletian said in that recording. “That, to me, is not what a parent would ever want to see.”
Two months later, he said, he was reported to Child Protective Services as a negligent father. That investigation has been closed. Other parents said they have seen similar reports, which they believe to be retaliation for complaining.
And as a professional photographer, Erkiletian gave much credit to a student with special needs at Belmont Ridge Middle School who took a photo that brought the practice of confining special needs students to the public eye. The photo, originally published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, depicted a student walled off in a corner of a room with two staff working in another corner of the room.
“A photo like that changes things,” Erkiletian said.
The meeting was also attended by members of three organizations at Paxton Campus: Kendra McDonald, director of Clinical Services at the Aurora School; Jennifer Lassiter, former executive director of the ARC of Loudoun and now CEO of the Margaret Paxton Memorial Trust; and Eileen Shaffer, administrative director of the ALLY Advocacy Center.
Lassiter said she saw the same thing with her daughter 15 years ago, “and it’s worse now.”
“At Aurora, there are certain things that we know for a fact, and that is that sometimes crisis happens, and even people with absolutely stellar training and the best of the best and one-on-one, it still gets ugly and people still can get hurt,” Lassiter said. “So we put processes in place to make sure that when those things happen, everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and everybody knows what happened before and after.”
But parents say there is little documentation of what their kids go through during school hours at local public schools, and they have trouble getting that.
The meeting was led by Claudia Skinner, a parent of a child with special needs who’s also trying to connect concerned parents to an attorney from Fairfax who specializes in special education and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Gordon, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia’ Civil Rights Coordinator.
“I was just tired of having to fight this fight all the time, and then having the next parent fight the same fight,” Skinner said.
Parents at the meeting said these are not new issues, but they are not always taken seriously by other parents when they complain, and are under a burden that makes it difficult to act.
“It’s impossible to do anything,” said Kerry Kazanjian. “You’re drowning emotionally, you’re drowning physically, you’re drowning mentally—you’re drowning.”
“The system is broken,” Skinner said. “What happened is really a result of kids not getting their needs met. It is because they don’t know what to do with our children, because they don’t want to do anything with our children. So they are instituting practices to keep us away, their instituting practices to keep us in line, and really without us knowing if they’re learning.”
She was one of a handful of parents at a town hall meeting with Senator Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33) and Dels. David A. Reid (D-32) and John J. Bell (D-87) on Saturday. They raised those concerns to the state elected officials there. Bell said those officials would be jointly sending a letter to ask for an investigation into Loudoun County Public Schools’ practices, and ask the state Department of Education to get involved.
“We can use our positions to help get as much information as we can, and frankly if anyone’s having a retaliation—that’s a criminal issue, we can get the authorities involved,” Bell said.
In response to requests for more information and comment, Loudoun County Public Schools Public Information Officer Wayde Byard referred to a presentation at the school system’s Special Education Advisory Committee. Guidelines for seclusion presented at that meeting state that it “should only be used in an emergency, i.e., a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected situation that requires a person(s) to take immediate action to avoid harm, injury, or death to a student or to others when there is immediate danger to the student and/or to others” and “should only be conducted by a team of trained school-based personnel… with at least one additional staff member present and in line of sight.”
According to that presentation, “seclusion is not a teaching procedure or behavioral intervention and should NOT be administered as punishment or to address behaviors for non-emergency reasons, such as noncompliance, disrespect, disobedience, misuse or destruction of property, disruption, threats, etc.” and “should last only as long as necessary to resolve the actual risk of danger or harm while awaiting the arrival of other trained staff.” Furthermore, after seclusion, the student must be seen by a health clinic staff member, the incident must be reported to the principal, and school staff must try to directly contact the parent of the student within a day of seclusion.
Byard wrote in an email that “LCPS employees are mandatory reports to CPS if the suspect a child is being abused. That is the sole criterion for such reports.”
“By law, we can’t discuss individual cases,” Byard wrote. “We can’t dispute individual claims because, by law, we can’t reveal the contents of student records.”
Skinner said those parents from Monday’s meeting at ALLY Advocacy Center will gather again.
“We’ll have a lot of things that will prevent us from coming back, but if we don’t take this and push for this, and try to do as much as we can as fast as we can, it’s going to die,” Skinner said.