In the photo, Gigi Daniel-Zagorites grips the edge of a small bookcase, her tilted head peering over. The bookcase and a cabinet barricade the 13-year-old in one corner of a classroom. Two women sit, backs turned.
Months have passed since the moment in September when a classmate at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County captured that image on an iPad. But many questions have yet to be answered for Gigi’s mother, Alexa Zagorites.
Why was her daughter, who has a disorder that hampers her ability to speak, confined? How long was she there? How often did this happen?
“I was embarrassed for Gigi. I was sad for Gigi. I was worried. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in her mind because she can’t tell me,” Zagorites said. “It’s a cage.”
Gigi’s experience isn’t unique. Thousands of schoolchildren, most of whom have disabilities, are involuntarily confined in U.S. schools each year. In the 2015-2016 school year, more than 36,000 students throughout the country were subjected to seclusion, according to federal data released in April. Nearly 86,000 more were restricted from moving freely by a school worker holding the child or by being immobilized by other restraints, such as handcuffs.
Even then, experts say, underreporting probably masks how frequently seclusion and restraint are employed in schools. No federal laws specifically govern either of the closely related practices, resulting in a patchwork of policies across states and school districts.
For some students and their families, the use of seclusion or restraint can come at a grave cost — in the most severe cases, children have died or suffered injury.
In 2014, federal civil rights officials determined that two schools for students with emotional disabilities in Prince William County repeatedly restrained, secluded and removed children from classrooms. The practices, officials found, impeded students’ education.
The image of Gigi, first published by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, stoked anger among other Loudoun parents who feel their children have been similarly endangered by the school system.
In response, district officials held town hall meetings about seclusion and agreed to review the system’s policies. The school board voted in April to create a committee to review the district’s special-education services.
“Parents and community members are always key partners in our work with students,” Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard said. “We take student safety and the quality of instruction very seriously and are looking into these concerns.”
But some parents and advocates said that doesn’t go far enough and does little to address the traumas they say children have endured.
Without the photograph, Zagorites doubts she would have learned her daughter had been confined. The image unsettles her, still.
“I can’t understand how anybody can look at the photograph and justify it on any level,” she said.
An administrator opened a manila folder, revealing a photo of Gigi. Examining the photo for the first time during a November meeting at Belmont Ridge, Zagorites cried.
It appeared that her fun-loving, social daughter was struggling to free herself from the furniture that walled her in. The mother pressed administrators: What did the photo mean? Why had Gigi been kept in that space?
“I was hysterical,” she said.
The administrators were apologetic, Zagorites recalled, and assured her the school system was investigating.
In a brief, single-page letter dated Nov. 21, the school’s principal offered two assurances following an internal investigation: No child was physically harmed by Belmont Ridge staff, and the school promised to continue a review of its seclusion practices.
The letter offered no details on what may have prompted the incident. There was no acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The school’s response “doesn’t answer anything,” Zagorites said.
Gigi, who has Phelan-McDermid syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that causes developmental delays and intellectual disability, now attends the private Aurora School. Zagorites had planned to enroll her daughter at the school for students with special needs before the incident at Belmont Ridge.
School system officials declined to comment on cases involving specific students, citing student privacy laws.
Although the federal government does not regulate seclusion, it suggests how the practice should be employed, recommending its use only in situations when a student poses a physical threat to themselves or others. Once the danger subsides, seclusion should end, the federal government advises. Parents should be notified immediately.
In some instances, educators say seclusion and restraint are necessary to manage potentially unsafe situations. In a 2012 report, AASA, the School Superintendents Association opposed any move by federal authorities to forbid the practices.
The report noted that school employees have been hospitalized in the wake of student outbursts, and that even staff trained in proper seclusion and restraint techniques have faced physical threats or attacks.
While the superintendents organization said seclusion and restraint shouldn’t be commonplace or used to punish misbehavior, it described the practices as necessary tools for school workers “to defend themselves and their students from incidents that could be dangerous.”
In Loudoun County, the seclusion policy was modeled after federal recommendations. But Suzanne Jimenez, the school district’s special-education director, said misconceptions persist about what seclusion is and how it’s used. Students may voluntarily leave their classroom and work separately when they’re tired or irritable, but that isn’t regarded as seclusion, Jimenez said.
“We don’t ever intend to isolate students,” she said. “The seclusion is a brief emergency response that is intended to protect the students from harm.”
Episodes of seclusion are rare, she said: It was used five times with three students in the 2015-2016 school year in Loudoun County, according to local data. A year later, there were 26 incidents of seclusion involving nine students, according to the school system.
Jimenez couldn’t pinpoint a sole reason for the sudden uptick in seclusion. The increase, she said, could reflect a student who experiences repeated difficulties or because of greater focus on seclusion training and practices.
A school system spokesman said administrators have worked to educate parents on what constitutes seclusion and, “as we talk through the criteria of seclusion, they come to understand that their child was not secluded.”
But parents said regardless of what it’s called, the treatment endured by their children is indefensible.
Jessica and Ronnie Kecman said that over a three-year period, their son was regularly separated from classmates at two Loudoun schools and isolated for sometimes as long as several hours.
Problems arose in 2015, when their son, who has high-functioning autism, began fourth grade at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Leesburg. He was suspended or sent home early for displaying verbal and physical aggression at least eight times in September and October of that year, according to records provided by the Kecmans, who did not want their son identified.
During repeated trips to Frederick Douglass, the Kecmans were led to a “cool-down” room near their son’s special-education class. School officials billed the bare room with painted cinder-block walls as a quiet, calming place where frustrated students could retreat, Ronnie Kecman recalled.
But a much different picture emerged when the Kecmans would pick their son up early from school. The Kecmans said they witnessed their 12-year-old being directed to sit, legs crossed, for five to 10 minutes in the “cool-down room.” On other occasions, they said the same would happen in the boy’s classroom as an educator clutched a gym mat, cornering him between the wall and a bookcase.
A kitchen timer would count down, Ronnie Kecman said. The environment further agitated their son, who also has ADHD and anxiety — the boy began biting and scratching himself, or banging his head against walls.
The Kecmans’ son injured his head at school at least five times between November 2015 and February 2016, according to letters from the school district the Kecmans shared. The letters don’t specify how the injuries happened.
“If we hadn’t been going to the school so often to pick him up from that room, we would have had no idea that that’s what was happening,” he said.
The Kecmans transferred their son to Ball’s Bluff Elementary School. Problems there were less acute — educators still used a bookcase and mat to corner the Kecmans’ son, but instead of taking him to another room, the rest of the class moved when teachers decided the child needed to be separated, the family said.
“I thought I was the crazy parent for making a big deal about it,” Jessica Kecman said. “But it is a big deal.”
“People should hear this or see this, and they should be blown back by it,” Ronnie Kecman said. “But it’s so commonplace.”
The stories were ghastly: A 13-year-old at an unnamed alternative public school who hanged himself in a seclusion room. A 9-year-old in New York — whose crime was whistling and slouching — stuck in a room that reeked of urine.
A 2009 federal study recounted those episodes in a review of alleged cases of death and abuse resulting from seclusion and restraint. Researchers couldn’t determine how often those practices resulted in death or injury, but they unearthed hundreds of allegations that arose throughout the country between 1990 and 2009.
More recent data show students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to the practices. While they make up 12 percent of students enrolled in public schools, they constituted 66 percent of seclusion and 71 percent of restraint cases in 2015-2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights arm.
Students with emotional issues may display aggressive behavior, triggering the use of seclusion or restraint, said Reece Peterson, professor emeritus of special education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
“It’s not really a surprise,” Peterson said. “But on the other hand, should it be as wide of a gap as it is? Probably not.”
Moreover, he said seclusion and restraint are probably underreported.
“As educators, we don’t normally think of things we do as causing death or injury to the kids we serve,” he said. “You’d think this would be a closely monitored area that would require very good training as well as reporting.”
Joseph Ryan, a special-education professor at Clemson University, said seclusion and restraint are often inappropriately applied when students don’t follow directions or otherwise misbehave, and frequently used on the same students.
“Even though it’s not effective, it keeps being used again and again,” Ryan said.
In 2015, Virginia lawmakers directed the state to adopt regulations on seclusion and restraint in public schools. The state’s Board of Education signed off on proposed rules in March 2017 that are undergoing review.
This past March, a bipartisan group of nine lawmakers called on state officials to investigate the use of isolation in Loudoun.
Jimenez, the Loudoun district’s special-education director, said she asked the state’s Department of Education to help review the school system’s guidelines on seclusion and restraint. A state Education Department spokesman confirmed the agency’s involvement in a review..
Alex Erkiletian’s son lay in the darkened room, eyes strained from crying.
Erkiletian rushed to Frederick Douglass one afternoon in February 2017 after administrators called and said his son made suicidal comments and needed an emergency evaluation.
After 10 minutes in the school office, Erkiletian was led to the room with cinder block walls and a bare linoleum floor, he recalled.
The sight unsettled him. He had assumed that when his son needed time to calm down, his son would decompress in a “chill area” the father had been shown on an earlier visit — a partitioned space in his son’s classroom with cushions and books where children could unwind when they felt tense.
Instead, the 11-year-old — his father wants to keep his identity private — was in the bare room.
“He was just laying there, on the floor, face down, lights out,” he recalled. School officials told Erkiletian his son, who has a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, had been in the room for most of the day after he had become agitated and used vulgar language.
Erkiletian refers to the space as an “isolation room.”
The school system disputes that characterization. Rather, a spokesman said, schools may have rooms for “students who require a quiet place to work or regain their composure.”
Erkiletian doesn’t think teachers in the school system acted nefariously. But he and other parents and advocates said the use of seclusion in Loudoun schools indicates systemic issues with training and the way the district educates students with special needs.
The school system said all staff members who work with students with disabilities are licensed through the state Department of Education and have advanced training in managing students’ behaviors. The system intends on expanding its training next year, said Byard, the spokesman.
But Claudia Skinner, the leader of a group of parents who have children with special needs, said teachers are ill-equipped to manage students with greater needs.
“Those incidents happen because the system is broken, because children are put into classrooms that they don’t belong, because teachers don’t have the expertise, the knowledge, the training,” she said. “All this unmanageable chaos is now managed through seclusion and restraint.”