DOJ finds Anchorage School District used improper restraint and seclusion techniques on students

Investigation: ASD violated civil rights of students with disabilities
Parents react to Anchorage School Distric's policy regarding use of restraints on students
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 10:16 PM AKST|Updated: Feb. 16, 2023 at 10:20 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A Department of Justice investigation has found that some Anchorage School District students with disabilities have been improperly restrained and placed in seclusion as a form of discipline. The DOJ and the school district agreed on a non-financial settlement and on Thursday school administrators held an online news conference to discuss what that will mean moving forward.

“We will end the use of seclusion, we will reform the use of restraint, we will do better for our students,” Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Byrantt said.

DOJ began its investigation on Nov. 3, 2020, and found a number of issues of civil rights violations involving students with disabilities. According to school officials, four ASD schools were involved: Whaley, Kasuun, Lake Hood and Baxter Elementary.

Cassandra, a parent who only wants to be known by her first name, says the problem is more widespread. She says she fought the district for years to make things better when her child attended public schools.

“Restraint and seclusion creates an environment of terror for students with disabilities,” Cassandra said.

Cassandra says she served on the Special Education Advisory Council, was a member of the Governor’s Council on Disability and was also president of a special education PTA. She says Anchorage students with behavioral issues are treated differently than others,

“Restraint and seclusion is not just used for extreme behaviors as the Anchorage School District wants us to believe,” Cassandra said. “Restraint and seclusion is used for non-compliant behaviors, and those types of behaviors include not starting on a worksheet when the teacher asks you to, or putting your head down on your desk or, in my personal experience, sitting in the wrong chair.”

Bryantt said the district will completely end its use of seclusion rooms and excessive restraints beginning next school year.

“I instructed my team to immediately begin investing in training and changes to infrastructure,” Bryantt said.

This comes after DOJ found “the District improperly secluded and restrained students with disabilities and failed to use appropriate behavior interventions.” In addition, “the District discriminated against students on the basis of disability by denying them the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the District’s education program.”

However, Bryantt doesn’t fully agree with the DOJ’s findings.

“We refute that there was discrimination on the basis of disability,” Bryantt said.

Cassandra says she knows firsthand that’s not true.

“Now kids with, who receive special education services, are not the only kids who express non-compliant behaviors,” Cassandra said. “But they are the only kids who are subjected to restraint and seclusion.”

Cassandra feels countless students have gone through the same thing. When asked, district officials hesitated to provide an exact number, only saying, “it is more than 100 students.”

Bryantt expressed his commitment to comply with DOJ’s settlement agreement with the District and expressed some compassion for the past treatment of students previously subjected to harsh treatment.

“I went into a seclusion room myself to understand how we got here and it was clear that we needed to change direction,” Bryantt said.

Cassandra hopes the new direction will help students in the future but says that will do little to help those already affected.

“Generations of students who have lifelong trauma after being subjected to restraint and seclusion, really the abusive restraint and seclusion by the Anchorage School District,” Cassandra said.

Another parent spoke about her own experiences with the school district and the deployment of seclusion and restraint policies. Breanna Brian, a mother whose son attended an ASD elementary school and was subjected to the controversial practices, agreed with the DOJ’s reported findings.

“It’s been a systemic issue, not just within the Anchorage School District, but I think it’s a systemic issue amongst the institution in terms of services that are provided for individuals who experience disabilities,” Brian said. “So, I was not surprised that they did substantiate that ASD uses restraint seclusion improperly.”

Brian’s son is no longer in elementary school and is thriving in class, landing on the honor roll. Brian credited an array of support services for her son’s improvement over the years, both inside the ASD system and outside of it.

The memory of advocating for her son and fighting the restrictive seclusion and restraint policies hasn’t yet faded from Brian’s mind.

“I still have anxiety when I see that ‘742′ number pop up on my phone,” Brian said, referring to the phone number for the school district. “Because I immediately am drawn back to okay, oh no, what’s happened? What’s happened at school? Has he been secluded or restrained? Is he ... is he going to be suspended? And kind of always having to plan for ensuring that his rights aren’t violated.”