DENVER — The Denver Police Department opened an investigation into a monitored seclusion room at McAuliffe International School on Friday after Denver school board Vice President Auon'tai Anderson said he filed a report under the district's mandatory reporting obligation.
This came one day after Anderson said in a news conference that a whistleblower sent him a video of a room at McAuliffe where students were allegedly locked up, sparking allegations against former principal Kurt Dennis, who was fired in July after sharing safety concerns with 9NEWS.
A bill from 2022 (HB22-1376) allows for the use of monitored seclusion rooms in schools as long as there's at least one window or video equipment to monitor a student at all times. The bill also states that the room must be free of items that could injure a student and that it can't be used by school staff for storage, custodial equipment or office space.
State law also allows school staff to physically restrain an emotionally charged student— as long as staffers inform parents if the restraint lasts longer than one minute.
“Restraints are often where trained teachers and adults might put the kid in some kind of physical hold, where they are able to put their hands on them in such a way to prevent the child from hurting themselves,” explained David Hulac, chair of the school psychology department at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “Seclusion might be a separate room or something like that.”
"This is something like [for] a kid who's violent, who's throwing chairs, who is doing aggressive behavior that endangers the child or endangers other people.”
Hulac said putting children in a seclusion room should only happen under a behavior plan or individualized education plan (IEP)— which recognizes that a child could be dangerous unless they are removed from other people and potentially dangerous objects. Using locks for these rooms is not recommended, Hulac added, saying their use might make staff members feel like they can leave the room while an escalated child is still inside.
According to Hulac, violent behavior in children occurs in five different stages: normal behavior, agitation, escalation, crisis and recovery. During the early stages of agitation and escalation, Hulac said teachers and school staff can intervene with other means, such as "listening with empathy, giving calm redirection, providing space [and] praising approximations where the child tries to calm down”— like thanking a child for taking a deep breath.
Hulac said that, although monitored seclusion rooms are a resource to keep the violent child and other children safe, it should only be used as a last resort when a child is in the crisis phase, in which they aren’t able to learn until the situation calms down.
Hulac said a mix of training in early intervention and seclusion and restraint is essential for educators— especially when it comes to equity.
“We have found circumstances where groups of educators who have been trained in restraints then start to use those restraints a lot more,” Hulac said. “And we do tend to find that these restraints are more likely to occur against kids who have Brown and Black skin. And it's something that we certainly have to be aware of.”
When it comes to seclusion rooms, Hulac added that existing evidence suggests that students from African American and Hispanic backgrounds are significantly more likely to experience seclusion than those who are white.
Another potential concern of seclusion rooms is lax rules when it comes to deciding when a student should go into seclusion. Hulac said he has worked with some teachers who are exhausted for years after having an aggressive child in their classroom. He said he’s seen situations where students were moved into seclusion based on the stress of the teacher— perhaps when a student was being disruptive to a classroom, but not dangerous.
“We really have to keep in mind that if these rooms are going to be used, they have to be used with clear behavior planning for children and adolescents whose behavior has been demonstrated to be a danger to themselves or others,” he said. “That sort of concern about if some child is displaying an annoying behavior, so they have to go in the seclusion room, that's when we really start running into problems. And that's where you run into the equity problems."
Denver Public Schools policy specifically forbids the seclusion of a student alone in a room, but allows for de-escalation spaces where school staff can work with a student to calm them down.
“We have learned that what is said to have allegedly occurred at [McAuliffe International School] was not de-escalation but seclusion,” DPS chief communications officer Bill Good said in an e-mailed statement to reporters Friday.
Good said the district is aware of at least three students who were placed in the de-escalation room during the last school year. At least one of them didn’t have an IEP or another behavior plan that allowed de-escalation as a method of intervention.
Good also said the condition of the room was not up to the district’s standards for a de-escalation room, included in a 2019 interdepartmental memo to school leaders. He said photos of the room showed that plumbing fixtures and piping were not removed from the room or secured, electrical raceways were exposed, the fire suppression system was unsecured, radiator piping was unsecured and exposed and the room had no padding on the walls.
Through his attorney, fired McAuliffe principal Kurt Dennis told 9NEWS he worked with Denver Public Schools staff this past spring to make sure the room was up to district standards. He said the district does not provide any guidance on how to secure the door of a de-escalation room, and he had installed a latch for fear of students in crisis slamming the door and hurting themselves or others. Dennis said the room included a window to monitor students and that an adult was always present when a student was inside.
Though Dennis was fired earlier this year, Denver’s school board has to vote to validate his termination. After releasing the details of these allegations, at least three board members: Vice President Anderson, Treasurer Scott Esserman and School Board President Xochitl Gaytan indicated they would vote to uphold Dennis’ termination.
Several of those board members have planned a Monday morning news conference to detail more allegations against Dennis.
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