Isolation rooms focus of new law

Districts develop policies for use with special ed students

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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State law on student restraint and isolation

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Rep. Stonier talks about isolation room law

photoState Rep. Monica Stonier D-Vancouver

In response to a new state law, school boards throughout Clark County are crafting policies about isolating or restraining students who are in special education programs.

The law requires schools to inform the parent verbally within 24 hours of a child being isolated or restrained, and to notify them in writing within five business days of the incident. The law also requires that districts give parents a written copy of their policy on isolating or restraining students.

Although most school districts already had isolation procedures in place, they did not have a formal policy adopted by the school board, said state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who introduced the legislation.

"It was important to me to make sure that in law we were following a policy that had been written and vetted by educators and advocates to make sure parents are involved in the process," Stonier said.

Isolation rooms were thrust into the news about a year ago when a photo of a padded isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary in Longview was posted on Facebook. A parent was concerned the space was being used for punishment. Shortly after that, the district stopped using the booth.

The Battle Ground, Evergreen and Vancouver school districts all planned to discuss the new law at school board meetings this week.

"We had procedures and practices that we followed, but it wasn't written as a board policy," said Denny Waters, executive director of special education at Battle Ground Public Schools. "The thing that changed for us was the reporting requirements."

Battle Ground has three isolation rooms: two at primary schools and one in a middle school, Waters said.

"Primary school is where they are used more," Waters said. "That's where kids have a hard time controlling their emotions."

Although the law went into effect July 28, the Legislature and the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction spent time in the fall discussing how districts will implement the law, said Jey Buno, director of special services at Evergreen Public Schools. The Washington State School Directors Association recently put together model policies for districts to follow, Buno said.

"Now school districts are beginning those conversations with their school boards," Buno said.

About 3,400 students in Evergreen Public Schools receive special education services, he said. The school board will discuss the law and its reporting requirements at a workshop during today's school board meeting, 5:30 p.m. at 13501 N.E. 28th St. in Vancouver.

"We didn't have a policy in place prior to this. We had a practice," Buno said. "We are putting a policy in place that not only do we notify parents that it occurred, but we have to notify families about the new policy."

That discussion will happen in the annual face-to-face meeting the district's special education teachers have with parents, Buno said.

Vancouver Public Schools has about 2,800 students who receive special education services, said Sally Charuhas, the district's executive director of special services. She said the district already informs parents sooner than the required 24 hours.

"The piece that's different now is that parents whose children receive special education will receive a copy of the new policy," Charuhas said. "There's a specialized form that we will have to fill out. We're working on how to get the staff to understand how to have these conversations."

Stonier, an educator at Pacific Middle School in Vancouver since 2000, said students often choose to enter an isolation room as a "cooling-off place" to calm themselves before engaging with their class again.

"There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings around how isolation rooms are used," Stonier said.

At the same time, educators "have seen some rare and very tragic situations" in which isolation rooms were used with nonvocal students or when parents weren't brought into the conversation, she said.

"I also hope, most importantly, that we have better conversations about what our community of citizens with disabilities needs to get a quality education, to get into the workplace and to live a successful life, earning a check and contributing to our community," Stonier said. "That is the long-range picture and goal that I'm working on, and this bill is just one part of that."

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, co-sponsored the bill.