Anchorage School District has restrained or secluded students thousands of times since 2014

Numbers have declined and policy will be phased out following DOJ settlement
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 5:34 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Three weeks ago, the Anchorage School District and the United States Department of Justice announced a settlement agreement following a finding that the district improperly secluded and restrained students with disabilities.

Until now, it had not been disclosed how many times students were affected by the district’s policy, but an Alaska’s News Source investigation found that number to be in the thousands.

Restraint and seclusion policies are used primarily in what are known as SBBS schools — school-based behavior supports schools. They are supposed to be used when students pose a risk to themselves or others. Restraint is the act of school staff physically restricting the movement of a student, while seclusion is the practice of placing a student in a room — usually alone — for a period of time.

In 2014, the State of Alaska passed a law designed to reduce those practices. Part of the DOJ settlement agreement with the school district requires they phase out the use of restraint and seclusion practices.

Anchorage School District officials held a news briefing on Feb. 16 to discuss details of the settlement agreement.

When asked how many students had been restrained, district officials could not provide an exact number — but said at the time it was more than 100.

However, data provided by both the United States Department of Education and the Anchorage School District show that hundreds of students were restrained or secluded since 2014.

The data also reveals a decline in the use of the policies. Some 267 students were restrained during the 2014-15 school year, which fell to 122 in the 2019-20 school year and again to 116 in the most recent reporting period. The information also shows a substantial drop in the use of the practices during the years students participated in remote learning.

Rates of restraint in Anchorage School District
Rates of restraint in Anchorage School District(KTUU)

The number of students secluded also dropped over time. During the 2015-16 school year, 186 students were secluded; 123 were secluded in the 2019-20 school year; and 40 this year.

Because some students were disciplined more than once, the total number of times a child was restrained was 6,215. The total number of seclusion instances total 6,688.

Rates of seclusion in Anchorage School District
Rates of seclusion in Anchorage School District(KTUU)

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the union representing Anchorage teachers, believes the numbers of restraints and seclusions are conservative and explained why so many students are affected.

“It’s absolutely partly staffing and partly students who are having a very, very challenging time controlling themselves in our learning environments,” Aist said.

Aist said he thinks teachers will be on board with the changes mandated by the settlement agreement, including the changing of seclusion rooms into what are being called multisensory de-escalation rooms.

“I believe that moving to some type of space where the student has activities — and possibly music or soft landscape sounds — teachers will embrace that, because we want what’s good for our students. And if this is a better option, and our students react better, everybody wins. So I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about is the continuation of the behaviors in our schools and the inability of us to to support all students in the manner in which they need,” Aist said.

He says the problem of managing complex educational environments will remain a challenge.

“I get emails every week from teachers — elementary, middle and high school — who have been assaulted, or have a student who is acting out in a way that is harming the learning environment and their students,” Aist said.

The school district declined requests for an interview to discuss the numbers in detail, saying in an email that someone would speak after construction of the multisensory de-escalation rooms is discussed further. Those rooms would be larger than the current seclusion rooms and include features designed to be calming — such as soft toys, calming music and pleasant artwork. According to the settlement agreement, school staff would only be able to use physical restraint in the event of imminent danger or serious physical injury.

One parent of an affected student — who wished only to be known as Cassandra — says the practice has a massive effect on students.

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

The school district will also be required to provide compensatory counseling to any student who spent more than five hours in restraint since 2018 and hire a new behavior support administrator in addition to ending the practice of restraint and seclusion.

“This current school year, we have made a concerted effort to substantially decrease the use of seclusion and the technique will be prohibited in ASD in the 2024 school year,” ASD Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said.