HARPSWELL — A Topsham mother is upset and concerned about the safety of children at the Harpswell Community School based on her sons’ experience being put in the school’s seclusion room after they became “unmanageable.”

Kendele Ouellette said her oldest son has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and suffers from anxiety. His medication had to be switched during the 2017-18 school year, causing him more difficulty, she said. Ouellette said her son also has asthma.

“I’d gotten a call from the school to come pick him up (in September). They said he was just unmanageable,” Ouellette said. “As soon as I opened up the school doors, I could hear my son screaming and crying: ‘Let me out of here, it’s too hot. I can’t breathe.'”

It was an unusually hot day, and she remembers finding a staff member with her back to a door. From behind it, “I could hear my son screaming,” Ouelette said. “I’ve never even heard of a room like this in my life.”

Ouellette said that when she removed her 9-year-old son from the room, he was crying, his clothes were soaked in sweat and his face was beet red.

“It took me hours to get him to cool down,” she said.

She felt the district put her child’s life in danger and violated policy. She says she met with school officials to discuss the incident and that the school agreed to add more ventilation and make parents aware of the seclusion room, she said.

Seclusion rooms are common in school buildings statewide, but are used only in emergency situations, said Bob Lucy, interim superintendent for School Administrative District 75.

“I think we look at it as a last resort, and it’s only used in cases of emergency when a student’s behavior presents a risk of harm or injury to themselves or others,” he said. “Student and staff safety is always the top priority.”

Lucy said confidentiality concerns prevented him from discussing any individual students. However, he said the district’s policies and procedures adhere to the Maine Department of Education’s Chapter 33 rule governing physical restraint and seclusion. Staff are trained to use these measures.

“Seclusion can be achieved in any part of a school building with adequate light, heat, ventilation and of normal room height,” Chapter 33 says. “If a specific room is designated as a seclusion room, it must be a minimum of 60 square feet … contain an unbreakable observation window in a wall or door, and be free of hazardous material and objects with which a student could self-inflict bodily injury.”

Lucy said the seclusion room at Harpswell Community School is 64 square feet and meets those specifications. The room was used a total of seven times in 2017-18, but Lucy didn’t have information on how often the room has been used this school year.

He echoed this when asked if the school district has any plans to make improvements to the room, such as additional ventilation.

“The spaces that we use for seclusion in the district all meet the state law and regulations,” he said. “They have the proper square footage, the proper ventilation, they have all of the things that are in the regulations, including a window in a wall or door that allows monitoring of a student. And the space doesn’t contain any items with which the student could harm themselves or another student, so it all meets the letter of the law.”

Asked whether the school has worked to make parents aware of the room, Lucy said that the district’s policies regarding restraint and seclusion are online.

Also, “if we have to use a restraint or seclusion, parents are notified. We’re adhering to Maine law regarding the use of physical restraint and seclusion and we’ve adopted policies that are consistent with the law,” he said.

Lucy declined to comment on exactly how the seclusion room is used, or whether the school would honor letters from parents wishing to bar use of the room for their child.

Maine schools are allowed to take certain “restraint and seclusion” steps, said Sarah Adkins, the student assistance coordinator for the state education department, but only as an emergency intervention when the behavior of a student presents a risk of injury or harm to the student or others, she said. There needs to be a clear risk of injury, she said.

“If a 5-year-old is punching a 200-pound man in the leg, is that injurious? Probably not,” Adkins said. “But if a 200-pound high school kid is punching a 120-pound female, there probably would be some severe injury.”

In such an emergency, proper restraint can be used, and students can be placed in “seclusion” in any part of the building that meets the education department’s standards.

“I don’t think anybody wants to seclude and restrain kids,” Adkins said. “However, there are situations that come up that, based on that staff’s training and understanding of how the kid is behaving, that using the skills of restraining a student properly or using a seclusion room is appropriate.”

Schools are instructed to “never, ever lock the door” when using seclusion, Adkins said. “However, you can hold the door shut because if the student isn’t by themselves and they come out, they could hurt others.”

Ouellette recently found out her 7-year-old son, who has some emotional problems, also had been placed in the seclusion room this school year. She became aware when his therapist called her with concerns about a room he is being put in at school.

“She said (my son) calls it the torture room, he hates it in there,” Ouellette said.

While Ouellette agrees that her son can’t be allowed to disrupt class, she feels staff are not doing enough to calm him down by other means. The school is required to provide incident reports in cases of restraint or seclusion, which she is waiting to receive.

Now she has sent the school a non-consent letter and shared her story on social media. While she opted to keep her children at the Harpswell school this school year after her family had moved to Topsham, Ouellette said she may move her youngest son to Williams-Cone School.

There is a local complaint process and parents can then lodge a complaint with the state, which can launch an investigation. Ouellette said she hasn’t decided how she will proceed.

“I’m trying to raise awareness of this room and how we could make this safe,” she said.

Regional School Unit 1 in Bath uses seclusion rooms in its behavior support programs, which could be a designated room or anywhere that complies with its policies. It’s used sparingly, said Justin Keleher, the district’s director of special services.

“Our focus is always on using de-escalation strategies before the physical intervention piece,” he said.

According to the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, more than 36,000 students nationwide were secluded during emotional and behavioral episodes during the 2015–16 school year. The use of seclusion rooms soon will be scrutinized at the federal level.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announcedon Jan. 17 that the U.S. Department of Education will launch an initiative to address the possible inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion in schools.

“This initiative will not only allow us to support children with disabilities, but will also provide technical assistance to help meet the professional learning needs of those within the system serving students,” DeVos said. “The only way to ensure the success of all children with disabilities is to meet the needs of each child with a disability. This initiative furthers that important mission.”

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