The public school system in Fairfax County is one of the nation’s largest, educating nearly 190,000 students in the Virginia suburbs.
But it told the U.S. Education Department that in the 2015-2016 school year, not a single student had been restrained or secluded in its 198 schools and education centers.
The system joined nine other large school systems — including New York, the nation’s largest district, with more than 1 million schoolchildren — in reporting no instances of seclusion or restraint that school year.
The Government Accountability Office published a report Tuesday finding that many school systems do a poor job of tracking instances of seclusion and restraint, making it difficult for the Education Department to ensure that schools are not using the practices excessively.
The report’s authors said their findings raise questions about whether the misreporting they found in several large districts is “indicative of a more pervasive pattern of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.”
Schools sometimes resort to secluding and restraining students who misbehave or act out. Some schools put students alone in bare-walled “chill out rooms,” to get them to calm down. Others hold students down or use mechanical restraints — such as handcuffs — on children who might be physically acting out.
Experts say the practices should be used only when students pose a threat to themselves or others, but many schools use them far more frequently. The GAO also studied the issue in 2009 and found that one student had been kept in a room that reeked of urine, and that another had hanged himself in a seclusion room.
The Education Department collects data on the practice because it can be harmful to students, who miss out on their education when they are removed from classrooms. They can be injured or traumatized. Seclusion and restraint are disproportionately employed on students with disabilities.
But, as the report found, many school systems are doing a poor job of documenting instances, with 70 percent of school districts across the country reporting no instances of the practices.
When school systems that educate more than 100,000 students report no instances of seclusion or restraint, they are supposed to explain why and then submit an “action plan” if they report issues with the data. Of the 10 large school districts that reported no instances, only one, Hawaii’s statewide school system, affirmed to the Education Department that the number was accurate.
Many of the rest said they did not know how many times students were subjected to the practices in their schools. Some districts reported technical issues submitting the data. Others, including New York and Prince George's County, Md., were not collecting the data at all. Miranda Barbot, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, said the system is "working on a plan to improve compliance and ensure all data is reported appropriately."
Raven Hill, spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Public Schools, said officials started tracking instances of restraint in 2017. Hill added that the district prohibits educators from using seclusion.
“Prince George’s County Public Schools has revised its practices . . . towards greater compliance, transparency and accountability,” Hill said.
The New York City Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
When Fairfax County Public Schools reported no instances of seclusion or restraint, the system was supposed to offer an explanation and submit a plan for improving data collection. But the Education Department never followed up with Fairfax County schools, the GAO report found. WAMU-FM later that found the school system had hundreds of instances of seclusion and restraint during years it reported none.
Fairfax County school officials have since announced they would submit amended data, and that they would begin using an electronic data collection process next school year. John Torre, a spokesman for the school system, said Tuesday that the district is also reviewing restraint and seclusion practices, creating a special education task force and hiring an ombudsman to work with parents of children who receive special education.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced this year that her department would work with schools to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint. Tuesday, an Education Department representative said DeVos has made the issue a focus of her administration, including conducting a review of the data submitted by school districts.