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Restraining, secluding misbehaving students still a problem in ND schools

Brady Burkes, at his home in Grand Forks on Friday afternoon, is joined on the couch with the family rescue dog Brittany, a two year old Jack Russel Terrier, as Fiona the cat looks out the window. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service1 / 4
Brady Burkes scratches Brittany's belly, the family's two-year-old rescue dog at his home in Grand Forks Friday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service 2 / 4
Brady Burkes at his home in Grand Forks on Friday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service 3 / 4
Brady Burkes at his home in Grand Forks on Friday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service 4 / 4

FARGO – A teenager remembers how frightened he was when a classroom meltdown led to a school staff member restraining him.

"I felt like the person was going to hurt me," said Colin Vieweg of Fargo, 16, who has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

Another young man, diagnosed with an emotional behavioral disorder, said it would often set him off when teachers asked him daily how his mood was.

"I thought they were picking a fight with me," said Brady Burkes, 22, of Grand Forks. He dropped out of high school six years ago because he couldn't cope with being restrained.

For Pam Burkes, the worst part was when Brady was secluded in a school room that slightly larger than a closet and had no door handle.

"He felt like a caged animal," she said. "He's had nightmares from this, so much social anxiety."

Related: Restraint, seclusion methods in North Dakota schools scrutinized

Many with knowledge about restraint and seclusion procedures in schools say they're difficult to do and to watch, but they still happen in various forms in area school districts.

Brady Burkes at his home in Grand Forks on Friday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News ServiceMinnesota law spells out acceptable restrictive procedures, including "physical holding or seclusion," and requires school districts to track them. No such law exists in North Dakota, making it one of only five states in that category. South Dakota also has no statewide seclusion or restraint law schools must follow.

The North Dakota School Boards Association has drawn up a model seclusion and restraint policy that school districts can look to when considering a policy. A recent association survey shows that about 60 percent of school districts in the state have adopted such a policy or a similar one, nearly 30 percent have no policy and about 10 percent are in process of adopting a policy.

Child protection advocates say a statewide approach would be better. A task force that sprang out of a resolution passed by the North Dakota Legislature in 2015 is studying seclusion and restraint, and will report findings and recommendations to lawmakers during the 2017 session.

Pam Burkes applauds the move. She acknowledges her son had difficult behavioral issues, including aggression, but thinks the school district didn't do a good job of dealing with them.

"Physically and emotionally, they're hurting these kids and that needs to stop," she said.

What F-M schools do

The Fargo and West Fargo public school districts are among more than 100 in the state that have restraint policies. Their policies appear similar: that physical restraint only be used in an emergency to keep a student from injuring himself or herself or someone else, that it's done only by trained school personnel and that it's not used as a form of punishment.

Patty Cummings, special education director for Fargo Public Schools, said staff members are trained using curriculum from the Crisis Prevention Institute, or CPI. They're taught verbal and non-verbal de-escalation techniques, and to use certain restraint procedures only as a last resort.

Both districts prohibit seclusion, or confining a student alone in a room with limited space, without access to school staff. They do allow "timeout" procedures where a staff member remains accessible to the student.

"Students go to a calming room, a larger space," Cummings said, adding that sensory items are available such as softer lighting or a ball to bounce.

Fargo and West Fargo schools must notify, verbally and in writing, a student's parents or guardians about any physical restraint. School principals must keep a record of such instances; in Fargo, that applies to a restraint that lasts five minutes or longer and/or one that results in an injury.

Though each school in Fargo is required to maintain logs of physical restraint, Cummings said the record keeping varies, which makes it difficult to compile districtwide numbers. An official for the West Fargo district said they also don't have a mechanism to keep track of those numbers districtwide.

Moorhead schools, as required by state law, must track incidents of physical restraint and annually report the data to the state by June 30.

Eighteen students in the Moorhead School District have either been restrained or secluded so far this school year, said Communications Coordinator Pam Gibb. Among those students, a total of 65 restraint incidents and 22 seclusion incidents were reported.

Alternatives to restraint

JoAnne Vieweg, whose grandson Colin was subjected to restraint in elementary school, has been a big advocate for him throughout his school years. Vieweg, president of the Red River Valley Asperger-Autism Network and a retired school counselor, said when working with kids on the autism spectrum and those with behavioral disorders, it's important to learn what triggers their meltdowns or disruptive behavior.

For Colin, it was often a migraine or pressure to do something unexpected. His safe place was going to his locker at Fargo South.

"What works is giving him time to recover from his meltdown," Vieweg said.

"Like a glitch in the brain, and your brain needs rebooting," Colin said.

Prevention and alternative techniques have also gained favor at Prairie St. John's in Fargo, where Barb Stanton runs a day treatment program for kids who have autism. She said nearly every child she sees has been subjected to restraint or seclusion.

"It's not just the kids (who are affected). It's the kids who see it, the adults who have to do it or see it," Stanton said, adding, "Nobody ever wants to put a child in restraint."

She said she attends school meetings where staff members express frustration over their options in dealing with a disruptive child. In some cases, she said, staff haven't been properly trained.

"I don't want to sound like I'm pointing fingers, but we can do better, we need to do better and we can't wait," Stanton said.

The move away from restraint and seclusion is also happening in Prairie St. John's inpatient hospital, which treats people who are mentally ill or suffering from addiction.

Prairie St. John's has moved away from being a CPI facility to using Handle With Care, a trademarked behavior management system, said CEO Jeff Herman, who has been on the job for about nine months.

He said they've retrained staff to focus more on de-escalating behavior. As a result, the number and duration of restraints done on patients has been reduced.

Herman said they've also dramatically cut the number of seclusions, which he doesn't think benefit patients.

"Not a lot of great therapy happens in seclusion," he said.

In fact, he's in the process of turning Prairie St. John's eight seclusion rooms, which are stark and empty, into quiet or sensory spaces where a patient can calm down with music.

What happens next

North Dakota's seclusion and restraint task force meets monthly and being overseen by the North Dakota Consensus Council, an independent consulting firm.

Pamela Mack, director of program services at the North Dakota Protection & Advocacy Project, works in protective and advocacy services for people with disabilities. She hears many stories about people who have been subjected to unnecessary and harmful incidents of seclusion and restraint.

"We don't have any idea what the prevalence is," Mack said. "Are we improving as a state? It makes it difficult to know what's happening or not happening."

Matthew McCleary, a University of North Dakota graduate student who said he once dealt with an emotional disability in school, has advised the task force as an advocate for students and their families.

"Families want policies that have force of law — ample training, educational opportunities for staff, ample support for staff, meaningful data and reporting," McCleary said.

Stanton thinks it's time for seclusion and restraint to go by the wayside.

"We just need to take this off the table," she said.