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April 1, 2023

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OSPI probe: Evergreen Public Schools’ special services staff violated restraint protocols

School district required to provide training

By , Columbian staff writer
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An investigation led by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction earlier this year found that special services staff in Evergreen Public Schools had violated several state protocols regarding the use and reporting of physical restraints on students at Sunset Elementary School.

As a result of the findings, Evergreen was required to provide training on what constitutes a restraint, when a physical intervention becomes a restraint, appropriate alternatives to physical interventions and how to properly report and follow up on incidents with students, families and staff.

The training — led by OSPI Director of School Health and Student Safety Lee Collyer on Sept. 7 — was required for Evergreen special education administrators and the principal, assistant principal, special education certified staff and behavior intervention classified staff at Sunset.

The district declined comment on the investigation. In the OSPI document, however, the district said it investigated the claims and decided they were unfounded. The OSPI investigation concluded otherwise.

Launching the investigation

Details about the investigation and subsequent training were included in a document from OSPI.

The document shows that on April 20, OSPI received a complaint from Steven Davis, a special education paraeducator at Sunset.

Davis, who has worked in Evergreen since 2019, alleged that district officials and other staff members had violated the Individuals with Disabilities Act or regulations implementing the act with regard to improper usages of physical restraints and escorts.

A restraint as defined in RCW 28A.600.485 is a physical intervention or force used to control a student, including the use of a restraining device to restrict a student’s freedom of movement.

OSPI’s investigation centered around two questions: whether the district had been properly following procedures regarding restraint and isolation of students, and whether the district properly considered students’ needs for positive behavioral intervention supports. The form of restraint they were particularly focused on, as mentioned in the complaint, was “wrist-pulling” to get students to move throughout the classroom and school buildings.

As part of the investigation, along with interviewing Davis, OSPI interviewed an Evergreen behavior interventionist, Evergreen’s senior director of special services, OSPI’s director of school health and student safety and a handful of other teachers and paraeducators familiar with the classroom in question. They also examined the individual education plans and schedules of five students from the selected classroom.

Davis made his claims after witnessing multiple events where he said staff used improper restraints when students were not in immediate danger to themselves or others, as well as repeated failures to report the use of those restraints — which, in turn, left no record of the incidents. The restraints he saw most frequently included staff grabbing students by the wrists to lead them throughout the school, he said.

Davis said he learned about his own improper use of restraints after observing staff doing the same, which led him to research his conduct in relation to state and federal laws. He said he did not receive this training from the school district.

“Evergreen has declared themselves a nonrestraint district. They say, ‘We don’t do restraints.’ And so as a result, they just don’t train restraints, rather just the prevention of them,” Davis said.

“We just don’t know them when we see them,” David said of restraints. “We don’t know when we’re supposed to start one, we don’t know when we’re supposed to end them. We don’t report them.”

Consulting additional staff

A district behavior interventionist corroborated several of Davis’ claims in their time observing the classroom in question and added that they also did not receive training on how to perform a proper restraint, according to the investigation.

“The interventionist stated staff are told that ‘escorts’ are allowable, but that staff are not trained on how to properly escort students and thus pull or carry students who are not acting out and are already in safe spaces,” Page 8 of the complaint reads.

“The interventionist stated the behavior team is provided information that restraints are a last resort and can be traumatizing, and that they discuss avoiding restraints at the behavior meetings; but the interventionist stated he does not believe the special education staff are provided the same information,” the complaint said.

District officials declined to comment about the investigation and training, referring a reporter’s questions to OSPI.

In Evergreen’s response to Davis’ complaint to OSPI, however, the district denied the allegations, stating that it properly followed restraint and isolation regulations and provided positive behavioral interventions when required. The district asserted that Davis’ claims amounted to “instances of him misinterpreting or misunderstanding the situation.”

The training that Davis said he did receive, however, is in a program called “Ukeru,” which is designed to teach staff how to prevent restraints. Though he described it as helpful, he realized that the training still did not provide staff at his level with the resources required to properly deal with situations that did demand use of restraint.

Evergreen, OSPI investigations conflict

Evergreen officials conducted their own investigation prior to the OSPI’s April assessment and found the classroom in question to be “calm,” but still noted that some staff shared concerns about guiding students throughout the school by holding their wrists. The findings also mentioned that staff expressed concern about not understanding or having knowledge of specific student behavior plans.

OSPI found that Evergreen’s investigations didn’t correspond with their own.

“While the District’s investigation documentation indicated that several staff members and administrators observed the classroom and did not report concerns, other notes and statements from staff contradict this,” Page 21 of the complaint reads.

“Overall, OSPI finds that it is likely that some of the instances described were appropriate physical escorts or interventions. However, it is also likely that there were instances throughout the school year where an escort became a restraint because the intervention or force was used to control or restrain a student’s freedom of movement. The documentation indicated that many staff members utilized this practice. And, in these instances, there is no support that there was an imminent likelihood of serious harm that justified the use of a restraint.”

OSPI also found that Evergreen must properly follow up on these restraints not only with staff and families, but with the students themselves. “None of the incident reports included whether the incident was reviewed with the involved student,” reads Page 22 of the complaint. “This review is meant to both address the behavior that led to the restrain and serve as an opportunity for staff to explore how future restraints can be prevented.”

Paraeducators still in contract talks

As of Tuesday, the Evergreen Public School Employees large group union — of which Davis is a member — has yet to approve a new contract with the district. Union membership rejected the most recent contract offer in a membership meeting on Oct. 20.

Along with wage increases, union members have vocalized concerns about dangerous working conditions amid inadequate training and staffing shortages. In a board of directors meeting on Oct. 11, members of the paraeducators union spoke about the struggles they’re facing at work, with many referencing incidents of abuse and violence in understaffed classrooms similar to the conditions outlined in Davis’ complaint.

“Districtwide, there has been a surge of students needing (Individual Education Program) level care, especially in kindergarten and first grade, leaving staff stretched extremely thin and exhausted,” Shelly Prothro, a paraeducator at Hollingsworth Academy, said at the meeting.

Davis said he has heard things improved since the restraint training because kids are learning different rules and responding positively. However, he is fearful that students are not going to know what to do when things change because they are used to being pulled everywhere.

“They had no knowledge of how to self-regulate,” Davis said. “The way that we were teaching (students) to expect to be treated is going to haunt me forever.”