The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal civil rights officials find Frederick County’s public schools engaged in improper use of restraints, seclusion for disabled students

School district voluntarily enters agreement with Justice Department to address problem

Frederick County Public Schools staff made pervasive and improper use of restraints and seclusion when handling children with disabilities, federal civil rights officials said Wednesday, following an investigation into about 2½ years of data and documentation of the practice.

The investigation found more than 7,250 instances involving 125 students as young as 5 years old who were improperly isolated or restrained by staff in non-emergency situations when other, less-intrusive or harmful interventions should have been used. Every instance of seclusion involved a student with disabilities, although disabled students account for only 11 percent of the district’s 45,000 students, the officials said. Of the students who were restrained, all but one was disabled.

Loudoun County school comes under scrutiny for secluding student with disabilities

Almost all the incidents happened at three schools with special programs intended to serve students with disabilities or those who require extra social and emotional attention.

Frederick County Public Schools officials fully cooperated with the investigation and voluntarily entered into an agreement to take corrective action to ensure that disabled children are not subjected to discriminatory treatment in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and federal regulations, the officials said.

“Many of the areas that we identified as processes or areas in which we could improve were things we were already in the process of doing as a school system,” Frederick County schools spokesman Eric Louérs-Phillips said. “The whole goal of this is to better support our students.”

From the archives: School district obtains restraining order against student with Down syndrome that pits parent against parent

The agreement — detailed Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron in Baltimore and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — comes as advocates and others have pushed public school districts across the country to end the indiscriminate use of restraints and seclusion for disabled students.

Some states, including Virginia, have enacted legislation to limit the use of restraints and seclusion. Fairfax County last month settled a lawsuit brought by parents and advocacy groups over the treatment of students with disabilities who alleged that the students experienced discrimination, trauma and physical harm through excessive and improper use of seclusion and physical restraint.

Prince William schools restrain, seclude students frequently, inquiry finds

The Frederick County, Md., investigation, which was opened in October 2020, reviewed school data on behavioral interventions and focused primarily on school years 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and the first half of 2019-2020, officials said in a statement.

Eighty-nine percent of the reported seclusions and restraints occurred at Lewistown Elementary School and Spring Ridge Elementary School — the only district schools with programs to serve students with “significant social and emotional needs” — and at Rock Creek School, which is designed to serve students with severe intellectual or physical disabilities.

Under the settlement announced Wednesday, Frederick County school officials agreed to take corrective actions that include prohibiting the use of seclusion; reporting all instances of restraints and evaluating whether the use of restraints was justified; and provide additional training for staff to intervene in a more appropriate manner.