(CBS 5) Locking children in closets doesn't sound like something that could possibly happen in California's school system. But CBS 5 Investigates has uncovered evidence that it is a hidden problem, not reported by schools, and unknown to many parents.
A closet in a classroom that brings the memories back for a student we will call Chris.
"The door is closed, it's totally dark. There is a little tiny beam of light that comes under the door, but that's it." Chris told CBS 5 Investigates. When he was asked if he was trapped, he responded, "Pretty much."
Chris was a 6th grader at Mendenhall Middle School in Livermore. Despite his high IQ, behaviors resulting from a diagnosis of ADHD landed him in a special education class. He quickly discovered that anything considered 'misbehavior', like getting up out of your chair or not completing class assignments meant a trip to the closet.
"You really don't understand what it's like until you actually go through it," Chris said.
He says he was put in the "Quiet Room" a lot, and there was no getting out. "They would sit on the door so you couldn't get out and then sometimes they would put a chair up against the door," Chris recalled. "I sat in there for a whole school day one time."
And once, he tried to resist going in and a teacher got physical.
"He twisted my arm up behind my back and then he just pushed me and I hit the wall pretty hard," Chris said. "I felt intimidated kind of, because I mean he is bigger than me and he knows that."
How can that happen? Most parents can't imagine it: Their child shut into a room, sometimes as small as a closet. Under California law, it's only supposed to happen if the child is a danger to themselves or others. But advocates tell CBS 5 Investigates it's happening far more frequently than that.
Leslie Morrison is an investigator with Protection and Advocacy Inc., a non-profit that works with the disabled. "I think it's an enormous problem," she said. "In all of the cases that we investigated, the underlying incident that triggered restraint and seclusion is non-compliance with staff direction. They didn't do what the teacher asked them to do."
For example, there is a fenced area that looks kind of like a dog run at the John F. Kennedy School near Modesto. A U.S. Department of Education investigation found children were left here without access to a toilet, water or food, even some who had medical conditions including diabetes, seizures and asthma.
"Seclusion is very psychologically traumatizing, especially for children. Children fear being locked in a closet," Morrison said.
And it's not just seclusion. Morrison said teachers also sometimes physically restrain children improperly. Such as a 6-year-old who came home with duct tape on his clothing. It was used to literally tie him into a chair at a school in Southern California.
And staff at many schools also engage in so-called "take downs." Morrison said, "The most common one is face down on the floor and then you lean into their back or sides so that they can't breathe."
But Morrison said without proper training, "As the child is struggling to breathe the person is holding them down on the floor to stop the struggling. And what happens is you actually stop them breathing."
Morrison's group is backing SB 1515, legislation by California State Senator Sheila Kuehl that would limit restraints and ban seclusion. But some who work in the field oppose it.
Carroll Schroeder heads the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a lobbying group for non-profit providers which opposes SB 1515. "If and when the time comes, you need to have at least those two options available to you," Schroeder said. "If those kids don't have that option of that room, either the schools call the police, and the police will pick them up, or they will be suspended from school."
But not according to Frank Marone, a recognized behaviorist with B*E*T*A Behavior Education Training Associates. The group works with students with disabilities. "We have been able to illustrate that restraint is not necessary," he said.
They work with students such as Mario McMillan, who is autistic. "He would start hitting, throwing chairs, throwing his shoes," his mother Rufina McMillan told CBS 5 Investigates. At his former private school in Oakland, Spectrum, documents show teachers physically restrained McMillan on numerous occasions.
"I was very worried," Rufina McMillan said. "Maybe he would stop breathing."
But at the Via school, where Mario goes to school now, and where Marone trains teachers only positive behavior techniques and not to use restraint or seclusion, a big change. "He's calm now, totally calm," his mother said.
Meanwhile, Chris is now home-schooled and doing better. But he said that he can't forget that closet. "Human beings aren't supposed to be treating each other like that, you know," Chris said. "I mean it's just not supposed to happen."
After Chris's family filed a complaint, the Livermore School District shut his special education program down. John F. Kennedy School in Modesto said they have changed their practices as a result of the government investigation. As for Spectrum, they say they use safe and approved techniques to restrain students when there is danger.
Editor's Note: The following are statements from schools reacting to the CBS 5 Investigates report on children being restrained or shut into closets at California schools.
Statement by Chris Holmes(© MMVIII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
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