ABLE – NH: Dignity for People with Disabilities; Fairness for Families

Posted by: Website Administrator on 12/12/2012
Melissa Hilton had not been told her 8 year old son, Hunter, was being locked in a “seclusion room” at school every day the previous week. She had noticed his sudden reluctance to go to school, but had not thought that was too serious. It was only after another parent reported to her that she had witnessed Hunter being prevented from interaction on the playground by a teacher who said he “had not earned the privilege” that she began to ask questions.

At her first meeting with his teachers, they admitted the practice of locking Hunter up, and asked if they could put it in his “behavior plan.” Hunter is autistic and, so far, has limited verbal communication ability. Melissa, who has put her own career on hold in order to be able to provide care for him outside school, and others who have worked with him, understand his expressions and can help him head off the frustration that comes with not being understood.

But the school had not provided a communication device, as it had promised it would, and when he became upset he had to express himself with loud noises or physical movement. The situation had escalated, and they said they did not know what other options there might be.

The “seclusion room” at Hunter’s school is the size of a large closet. It has a bright overhead light and no furnishings, books or toys. Its walls are bare and blank. There is one door with a small window through which observers could watch Hunter as his fear and anger escalated to the point of him throwing himself against the walls. Instead of going into the room with him, they stood outside, watching through the small glass window in the door, clinically tabulating the number of times he hit his head or threw himself against the wall so severely that he actually damaged the wall. The term “seclusion room” masks the cruelty of what really constitutes a form of torture for a child desperate to be understood. Tragically, this form of “management” has been seen increasingly in places where adequate training and humane policies have been sacrificed for budget savings. Many fear that the consequence of going over the “fiscal cliff” will lead to even more draconian practices.

Shocked and confused, Melissa told them she needed to do some research of her own.

Melissa’s next step was a meeting with the whole team or people who worked with Hunter: his classroom teacher, the director of special education, and a behavior analyst. She demanded they take the lock off the door and always be with him. “That’s when they played more new cards,” said Melissa. “They told me that my beautiful boy was ‘the most challenging and violent child in the school district.’ They said he had broken teachers’ noses on two different occasions, though they refused to show me incident reports, and the principal of the school later said he was unaware of these things. Basically, they told me to accept their judgment about how to handle Hunter or leave the school.”

That’s when ABLE’s Jaffrey-Rindge chapter (ABLE J-R) began to act. They organized a community meeting and invited the principal and the district superintendent to speak and answer questions about their policies. At the last minute, they declined, citing “confidentiality laws.”

But other people came to the meeting. And some of them had stories of their own. Several reported that they had gone to the school with concerns only to be told that they were the only ones who seemed to think these policies were questionable, and that their children were “the worst in the district.” One mother testified that her daughter had come home from school with an unfamiliar log book from the teachers which had been sent home by mistake. She realized that the school was keeping two sets of reports, one that they shared with her, but another – the one that had been sent by mistake – that they kept to themselves.

With these stories and a growing number of concerned parents, ABLE J-R went to the school board with four specific demands:

  1. An immediate end to the use of isolation/lockup techniques that have not been first cleared with parents.
  2. Immediate engagement of an outside consultant to develop a new set of policies for working with our children.
  3. Immediate communication with parents concerning any difficulties their children experience in school that relates to their health and wellbeing.
  4. An end to the unprofessional relationship between the assistant superintendent and the special education teacher (their understanding was that he was supervising her, and they felt it compromised accountability)

At first, some school board members did not seem to take them very seriously, either. At one hearing, Deb Opramolla, the group’s chair, thought they were more energized by a discussion involving microwave towers on school property than by these issues affecting children. But they did not stop. 

They kept going back, kept writing letters, kept up the pressure, kept speaking out. And they made a difference:

  • the director of special education resigned
  • the superintendent of schools was forced by the school board to provide a public accounting of the policies and practices, and ABLE J-R was there to make sure the whole story was told
  • the district signed a contract with the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability to re-write their policies
  • a series of public forums is now being held to review the draft policies – and ABLE J-R is there for every one

“It is tempting to describe this as a major victory,” says Opramolla. “But we know we have just won a battle in a much larger struggle. That’s why we need to keep organizing here, across the state, and someday, across this country.”

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