A review by the Virginia Department of Education into Loudoun County Public School’s restraint and seclusion practices found that there is no evidence of systematic failure to comply with state guidelines. It found that reports of special education students being restrained and locked in rooms as part of discipline were isolated incidents.
Superintendent Eric Williams requested that VDOE conduct an independent review following news reports earlier this year that documented stories from parents that their special education students had been held in isolation rooms for hours at a time. State legislators also called for an independent review of the school system’s practices.
In response to the report released Aug. 22, Williams stated, “We appreciate VDOE’s review and are generally pleased with the findings, but I want to emphasize that we have work to do to improve our policies, procedures, and practices in the area of special education, generally, and restraint and seclusion specifically.”
VDOE’s report recommended the school system make several improvements, including adopting more specific policies and procedures that explicitly ban “pharmacological restraint,” which is restraint using medication to subdue or sedate. The report did not find evidence that LCPS uses pharmacological restraint, but stated that the school system’s guidelines also do not prohibit it. The report also recommended LCPS require that every student is seen in the school clinic for incidences of seclusion and restraint; and that it review the incidences that involve isolating students in “chill rooms” to determine whether such actions were appropriate. It also encouraged the school system to improve communication with parents about its seclusion policies and its overall guidelines when it comes to caring for special education students.
The report also stressed that, “every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion…Physical restraint 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 an immediate danger to the student and/or to others.”
The report commended LCPS for its robust training to staff members on restraint and seclusion, its school-based crisis teams and procedures, medical resources, and the “quick, appropriate response by LCPS to the specific incident that prompted media reports in the spring of 2018.”
Following those news reports, the Loudoun County School Board created a special education ad hoc committee charged with scrutinizing special education practices and coming up with recommendations to improve them. It is made up of school staff members, board members, parents, and outside experts.
Beth Huck (At Large), the School Board member who chairs the committee, said the concerns raised by parents in the news reports were not a catalyst for the ad hoc committee—she and other board members had talked about starting one for months—but they certainly were a contributing factor. She said VDOE’s findings confirm that there is still room for improvement. “Even if the report came back squeaky clean, we still have work to do as an ad hoc. There are issues with communication and consistency that we still need to address.”
She gave the example of a decision that was made last school year by senior administration staff to no longer allow outside care providers—such as therapists or psychologists—into schools to observe their student clients. There has been no place where that rule change was written, Huck said. The ad hoc committee will likely recommend that schools allow outside providers into the classrooms within reason, as to not disturb students’ education—and that the guidelines are documented and clearly communicated.
The committee is slated to present their full list of recommendations to the School Board in November.
The person who will be enacting those recommendations is also new to the position. Shortly after creating the ad hoc committee, the School Board hired Asia Jones as the assistant superintendent of the Pupil Services Department, which oversees special education. Jones is also a member of the committee.
Jones started the job Aug. 1, a move that Huck said is another step in the right direction. “New leadership plus this ad hoc committee will be a good combination to look at the special education department holistically.”
Jones said in her first year on the job, she will focus extensively on special education, including improving practices and trust with parents. “It is my intention to engage and proactively communicate with parents and stakeholders,” she said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to the continued work within the department to empower all students to make meaningful contributions in their community and world.”