By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

A Montclair school policy adopted earlier this month continues to allow the district to physically restrain students or put them in seclusion rooms in emergencies — but requires more oversight and communication around their use.  

The techniques — typically applied to students with extreme behavioral problems — can be controversial. The New Jersey attorney general and 16 of his counterparts have backed a federal bill that would ban the practices as methods of discipline, and the state Legislature limited their use in a 2018 bill. The New Jersey School Boards Association notes in online materials a district can ban them altogether, but has to reconcile that decision with policies that let staffers use force to keep students from harming themselves or others. 

But some parents advising the district on special education matters stress the measures are only last resorts in complex, layered programs that help children struggling with behavioral and emotional regulation. 

Both the revised code and the previous version describe restraint and seclusion as techniques to be used only in emergencies, when students are at risk of harming themselves or others. But the new code goes further, saying restraint or seclusion shouldn’t be used as punishment or discipline, or “as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.”

It outlines principles saying students should be supported in the “least restrictive environment” and emphasizes “all efforts should be made to prevent the need for restraint and seclusion.” It says behavioral interventions “must be consistent with the children’s right to be treated with dignity and to be free of abuse.” And it says teachers should be coached to empathize with students — “and think about what someone would need if they were having a very bad day before looking to extreme measures as a remedy for negative behavior.”

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds didn’t return a message seeking information on how often seclusion and restraint are used. But the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection reports the Montclair district used physical restraints 10 times and seclusion 13 times in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. 

The 7-by-7-foot rooms are outfitted with protective padding on the walls and furnished with fidget toys and therapy balls, Thomas Santagato, director of pupil services for Montclair Public Schools, told Montclair Local in 2019.

The policy revisions are based on concerns raised by community members, Board of Education Vice President Priscilla Church said. The work on the policy change was informed by discussions with special education staff, state guidelines and research on the federal government’s policy statements on the issue, Church said.

“We wanted to add pieces that would present a clear protocol expectation,” she said.

Church said the board has been working on the policy change for months and has been open to feedback throughout the process. 

All policies are open for the public, all the time,” she said. “At our workshop meetings, I always review what the committee is working on so the community and the other board members, who are not on the committee, will have a heads-up as to what and why we are working on certain policies.”

The Montclair code uses the United States Department of Education definition of seclusion as “the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving” and physical restraint as “a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs or head freely.” 

The changes to the code, which was last amended in March 2019, include new guidelines dictating communication with parents for incidents involving restraint or seclusion. The old code stated that a post-incident report must be provided to parents within 48 hours of an incident; now the report must be given within 24 hours. The new code says that parents should be informed of school policies regarding restraint and seclusion along with federal, state and local laws, so that they can be “informed partners in the process.”

Seclusion rooms are among the tools used in the Montclair Achievement Program, a behavioral and therapeutic educational program at Charles H. Bullock School aimed at helping students manage behaviors and emotions. Jada Roman, a parent of a student in the Montclair Achievement Program, said she was frustrated families directly affected by the policy were not contacted by the board, but she sees a need for restraint and seclusion in the program. Roman is also a member of the district’s Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

The families, Roman said, are the ones who understand the policy and how it fits into the larger program for their children. The policy is “a specific module within a multipronged program” that is used only when absolutely necessary or as a last resort, she said.

“People are speaking about something that is one-tenth of what the program is,” Roman said. “They don’t talk about the 15, 25 things that happen before it gets to that point.”

According to Roman, parents of children in the program have agreed to the seclusion and restraint policy in writing, and are notified at the time of any occurrence with both verbal and written communication.  

“At no point do we not have any control,” Roman said. “This is a program that is proven and successful. It is managed properly by the staff and by the state.” 

Kathy Maloy, chair of the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said the council was not consulted in regard to the policy changes. 

“We want the district to talk to families who are in those schools and programs,” Maloy said. “As a SEPAC — a community of parents and caregivers — we respectfully recognize them as the experts.”

The revised code also places an emphasis on oversight for instances of student restraint and seclusion. The old version of the code says the superintendent “may gather input from school staff members and parents of students” and “shall annually inform parents” of the board’s policy. The new code further solidifies the duties of the superintendent, making the superintendent responsible for ensuring a review process, leading an examination of incidents each year, and establishing building-based teams to assist and monitor when restraint and seclusion techniques are used.  

Resident Nicole Farjani, a former district employee, said she was disappointed the public was not more involved in the policy revision process. She opposes the use of seclusion rooms in schools, saying in a recent post in the “Secret Montclair” Facebook group that they are “a serious case of injustice” and “can cause lifelong trauma.”

“The policy changes are very weak and keep children in harm’s way,” Farjani told Montclair Local. “This is a safety issue and a traumatic practice.”

Farjani is a member of the Alliance Against Restraint and Seclusion, a volunteer organization working to raise awareness about the use of seclusion and restraint. She worked as a paraprofessional for three years at Bullock School.

Montclair Civil Rights Commission Chair Christa Rapoport said the commission received two complaints about the use of restraint and seclusion rooms from parents during the past year, and those were investigated in collaboration with district central office representatives. She said the investigations found restraint and seclusion were used properly, as a last resort.

Rapoport also said that parents wrote the commission in support of the techniques. 

“The CRC has received numerous comments from parents who say given their child’s diagnosis and condition that the technique has been utilized appropriately,” she said. 

Church said the board is open to additional policy changes as additional concerns are raised. 

“No policy is left stagnant in this process,” she said. 

An earlier version of this post incorrectly quoted a statement by Nicole Farjani. Farjani said the use of seclusion rooms are “a serious case of injustice.”