Fairfax County Public Schools is promising to report to the federal government hundreds of instances in which students were subjected to seclusion and restraint after acknowledging the school system failed to report the information in previous years.

The Northern Virginia school district said 203 students were secluded or restrained 1,679 times in the 2017-2018 school year, according to data released Tuesday. The school system also incorrectly reported to the federal government that no students were isolated or restrained in previous school years, officials said.

A photo emerges and a Va. school system’s use of seclusion comes under scrutiny

The school system said it is compiling data for the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years and will submit the corrected information in the fall to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which collects the information every other school year.

“We have been remiss in our data collection and data reporting requirements for many years,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said.

Brabrand said the school system will commission an independent review that will examine why the district told the federal government it did not seclude or restrain children in those school years, despite records indicating it did. The investigation will include a review of data collection and seclusion and restraint practices.

The district started investigating its reporting practices after WAMU-FM found hundreds of documented instances of seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County Public Schools for years when the school system reported none.

When a student is placed in seclusion or restraint in Fairfax County, schools are supposed to record those instances on a paper form, according to the system. Copies must be sent to the student’s parent and the school system’s special-education instruction office. Another is kept in the student’s school record.

The school district began collecting data in 2012.

Fairfax County School Board Chairwoman Karen Corbett Sanders said the forms were not consistently reaching school system administrators or being filled out and entered into the record system.

The school system said it plans to start recording electronically instances of seclusion and restraint, bolster training for educators and create an ombudsman position for special-education issues.

Thousands of schoolchildren, most with disabilities, are involuntarily confined in schools nationwide each year. Experts say underreporting distorts how frequently such practices are used.

In the 2015-2016 school year, more than 36,000 students nationally were subjected to seclusion, federal data shows. Nearly 86,000 more were restricted from moving freely by a school worker holding the child or immobilized by handcuffs or other restraints.

Fairfax County Public Schools guidelines say students should be secluded or restrained only when necessary to protect the student or other people. Most of the students secluded or restrained in Fairfax in 2017-2018 were students with disabilities, but the system could not say how many.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said this year that her office would work with schools to reduce improper restraint and seclusion of students. Federal laws do not regulate seclusion, but it is recommended the practice be used only when students pose a physical threat to themselves or others. Once the danger subsides, seclusion should end, the federal government advises.

Some educators say the practices are necessary to manage potentially dangerous situations. In a 2012 report, the School Superintendents Association, also known as AASA, opposed any move by federal authorities to prohibit the practices.

A report from the association described school employees who have been hospitalized after student outbursts. It added that even staff members trained in proper seclusion and restraint techniques have faced physical threats or attacks.

Virginia is developing seclusion and restraint regulations for public schools that coincide with federal recommendations. The proposed regulations are under review.

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