Federal civil rights officials have found that two Prince William County public schools for students with emotional disabilities frequently restrained, secluded and removed children from classrooms in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to behavior management that took away instructional time and did not account for individual student needs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said there was not evidence that students were physically harmed by restraint and seclusion at the schools, PACE East, in the Manassas area, and PACE West, in Gainesville.

But an investigation concluded that the techniques were part of an approach that denied students with disabilities a free appropriate public education, as required by law. “The frequent use of these restrictive interventions suggests these strategies are not effective at changing or minimizing the problematic behavior,” the findings also said.

Lawyers who filed the complaint planned to announce the result Thursday, saying they hoped it would send a broader message about limiting use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations. The case comes amid a national conversation about the practices, which are often used for students with disabilities and have come under sharp focus amid reports of physical injuries and other damaging effects.

The 10-page set of findings came with a resolution agreement that requires Prince William to review records of students secluded, restrained or placed in a “reorientation area” more than once during the past two school years for a possible change in services or placement. The agreement also calls for compensatory services as needed, staff training and a plan to increase instruction when students are removed from classes.

“I think these findings are beneficial to children with emotional disabilities, and I think they are beneficial for parents of children with disabilities, and I think they are instructive to educators, if they pay attention,” said William B. Reichhardt, the lead attorney in the case, filed jointly by two law firms and the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

The original complaint, filed in November 2012, focused on a Woodbridge student, then a young teenager, who was allegedly placed in seclusion multiple times and subject to face-down physical restraints in what attorneys argued reflected systemic problems. They alleged discrimination against students with disabilities.

The mother of the student at the center of the complaint said that she hoped the findings would help other families who don’t speak English or know their rights, according to lawyers who released her statement. “As a mother, I am very happy with the OCR decision, knowing that other children will not have to go through what we did,” the statement said.

Prince William school officials said Wednesday that they cooperated during an investigation that lasted 18 months and support the agreement that was reached, but take exception to many of the findings. Together, the PACE schools enroll about 200 students.

James E. Fagan III, the school system’s legal counsel, said the agreement does not specifically cite changes that must be made in the district’s practice of restraint and seclusion, or in the district’s facilities.

The findings said that staff members using the restraint techniques were trained and that seclusion rooms were padded, with security cameras and windows in doors to ensure safety.

Fagan said he could not address areas of dispute with the findings point by point but said, “Do we believe we have abused kids or mishandled kids? No.” The school system takes the allegations seriously, follows well-
developed policies
and has acted appropriately with children in its care, he said.

“All I can say is we have a policy and regulations, and we follow them,” he said, adding that the district would address concerns. “You always try to move forward and react positively,” he said.

Federal officials did not comment in detail on the matter. An Education Department spokesman said the case was resolved last week with the agreement, which would now undergo monitoring to ensure full implementation.

In investigating the complaint, federal officials made visits to the PACE schools, which serve students with serious emotional and behavioral disabilities, in what is regarded as a last stop before residential facilities. They conducted interviews and reviewed every incident of restraint and seclusion over three semesters.

The records showed that “program personnel regularly placed students in restraint and seclusion for destroying property and disturbing the educational environment, though they were not placing themselves or others at an imminent risk of physical harm,” the findings said.

They also said most students did not have individualized plans with specific behavioral interventions designed for their distinct needs.

At PACE West, 40 percent of the student population was restrained or secluded in 2011-2012, with 219 such instances involving 60 students. That same year, 33 students were restrained or secluded — 144 times — at PACE East, according to the federal findings.

At PACE West the following year, school logs showed that, on average, more than half the student body was placed — each month — in the reorientation area, according to the findings. In a one-month period cited, students spent a collective 713 hours, 44 minutes in reorientation, averaging about 10.6 hours each.

When students are managed with such measures, they are “effectively denied access to the curriculum,” the findings said.

Angela Ciolfi, legal director for the JustChildren Program, part of the Legal Aid Justice Center, a co-counsel in the complaint, called the findings important for showing that restraint and seclusion should not become a default response to student misbehavior.

“I think restraint and seclusion should be avoided in every way possible, but when they are used, they should be used for emergencies, not for garden-variety disruption,” she said.

She also said the case underscored that school practices must reflect district policies.

The school system’s director of special education was quoted in the findings as saying that restraint and seclusion are not warranted unless situations rise to the level of emergencies. But according to the report, school personnel said students could be restrained or secluded for disruptive behavior, including when “a student is ‘screaming out or throwing paper at another student.’ ”

Ciolfi said the findings raised a broader question for school systems: “Does my front-line staff understand when this should be used?”