New Hanover County School District Uses Solitary Confinement for Students, Preying Upon Minority and Special Ed Children

by | Mar 23, 2022 | News, Special Reports

The feature image above is a video still from a student seclusion gone wrong at an Illinois school. This video (presented in the following article) reveals the serious risk of using seclusion rooms on young children. This exposé led to an emergency ban on all use of seclusion rooms in the State of Illinois.

Solitary Confinement is Used in Our Local Schools, and Most Parents are Completely Unaware

Revelation is arriving center stage on how New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) may be disciplining young students: solitary confinement (known as Seclusion) and physical restraint. Many in the local community are shocked by the application of these methods on young children; which, as data show, are mostly used on minorities and those with disabilities. Critics claim seclusion, along with certain aspects of physical restraint, is unsafe and our local educators are targeting the most vulnerable children and traumatizing them.

During the 2018/19 school year, there were 908 documented seclusions in NHC. And for the 2019/20 school year, there were 751 uses of seclusion. This data, published just before the COVID-19 lockdown, shows that about half of all Seclusion Room use across the state of North Carolina happens within the walls of New Hanover County schools.

Further data, provided by NHCS last week through a public records request, shows that during 2021, there were 138 instances of seclusion in NHCS; and black students were punished four times as often as white students through this method of discipline.

Seclusion Rooms: How Schools Are Using Them on Our Children

What is Seclusion?

Seclusion is the involuntary solitary confinement of a student from which they are physically prevented from leaving.

What is a Seclusion room?

These are small rooms employed to isolate a child during a seclusion session. They go by different labels: seclusion room, calming room, blue room, time-out room, etc. A seclusion room is intended to be a measure of last resort by school personnel, and only to be used when a student poses an imminent physical danger to himself or others, or to protect school property from “substantial destruction.” In the State of North Carolina, their use in public and private schools are completely legal.

The intent of these rooms is to isolate a child so they can “calm down.”

Although seclusion rooms are banned in many states, they continue to be legal to use in North Carolina for grades K through 12. In New Hanover County, they’re used in elementary and middle schools. The district claims none are used in high schools.

 Physical Characteristics

Dimensions of seclusion rooms in New Hanover County schools are 6’x8′ or 6’x6′. To provide perspective, the legal minimum requirement for a jail or prison cell in the United States is 6’x8′.

Seclusion rooms are required to have exterior ventilation, padded walls, and a door with an locking mechanism that prevents a child from leaving on their own. The rooms have no way for a child to communicate to others on the outside, nor do they provide bathroom facilities or access to water.

Use of Seclusion Rooms and Restraint in New Hanover County Schools

In New Hanover County Schools, children do not receive counseling before, during, or after a seclusion instance; and therefore, it is unclear whether children are learning right from wrong, or if educators are determining the concerns of troubled children.

As stated in North Carolina state law, all instances of children in seclusion rooms under 10 minutes at a time do not need to be logged by district personnel. Although NHCS Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam stated all use of seclusion rooms are logged, it is still possible seclusion room use goes under-reported.

Seclusion in NHCS: the numbers

U.S. Dept. of Education on Seclusion and Restraints

Click image to enlarge.

Data presented on the chart above, provided by the U.S Department of Education, shows that in 2017 the use of seclusion and restraint was disportionately used on children with disabilities in New Hanover County, NC. 

Further, a public records request made by Port City Daily revealed that, in 2021, young minority children were four times more likely to be secluded or restrained than their white peers in the New Hanover County School district. Of the recorded instances of restraint and inclusion last year, 157 involved black students and 44 involved white students. The NHC school district has a 17% black student population.

NC guidance states that Seclusion rooms are only be used by school staff as a measure of last resort when a ‘crisis’ occurs; when a student is an eminent threat to themselves or to others. However, their frequent use raises questions:

  • Does New Hanover County school administration use seclusion rooms beyond their intended use?
  • Do our local educators lean on solitary confinement to regularly punish and discipline children?

If the data is correct, there’s a crisis in NHCS with how seclusion rooms are used.

Which NHC Schools Use Seclusion Rooms?

According to Port City Daily, there are 25 schools in New Hanover County employing seclusion rooms, with plans to also integrate them within future schools — including the anticipated RiverLights community. The following is the current list of NHC schools with seclusion rooms and the tally of instances for 2021:

A.H. Snipes Elementary: 6 restraints, 6 seclusions
Alderman Elementary: 14 restraints, 5 seclusions
Bradley Creek Elementary: 1 restraint
Carolina Beach Elementary
Castle Hayne Elementary
College Park Elementary: 1 restraint
Dr. Hubert Eaton Sr. Elementary: 1 restraint, 1 seclusions
Anderson Elementary
Forest Hills Elementary: 17 restraints, 62 seclusion
Bellamy Elementary: 6 restraints, 0 seclusions
Blair Elementary: 3 restraints, 1 seclusions
Emma B Trask Middle School: 0 restraints, 1 seclusion
Holly Tree Elementary: 4 restraints, 1 seclusion
Mary C Williams Elementary
Masonboro Elementary: 0 restraints, 5 seclusions
Murrayville Elementary: 1 restraint, 16 seclusions
Pine Valley Elementary
Freeman Elementary
Sunset Park Elementary
International School of Gregory
Winter Park Elementary: 5 restraints, 4 seclusions
Wrightsboro Elementary: 3 restraint, 0 seclusions
Murray Middle School
Myrtle Grove Middle: 14 restraints, 5 seclusion
Williston Middle
Lake Forest Academy: 23 restraints, 25 seclusions

Julie Varnam presenting a Seclusion Room at Forest Hills elementary school

(Above) In January, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam provided Bethanie Simms, of WHQR, a tour of Forest Hills Elementary’s seclusion system. The photo above shows Ms. Varnam presenting the schools seclusion room.

Julie Varnam presenting a Seclusion Room at Forest Hills elementary school

(Above) Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam presents a system they use on children where Disney “Inside Out” characters are the focal point of the seclusion process. (Bethanie Simms, WHQR)

(Above) North Carolina’s Greenblatt Act makes Seclusion legal. The Cumberland County school system published this resource guide for school personnel on the topic Seclusion and Restraint as defined by North Carolina’s Greenblatt Act, which regulates the use of these procedures.

Dangers of Seclusion Rooms

Much has been written about the dangers of employing solitary confinement on children. The State of New York has found it so damaging that it has placed an outright ban on solitary confinement for minors who reside in juvenile correctional institutions.

U.S. Department of Education: Seclusion Rooms Pose a Danger to Children and are Widely Misused

In a 2012 research report published by the U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan (the Secretary of Education at the time) stated,

“…the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

This report emphasizes that once seclusion rooms are introduced into a school, no matter how well-intended, they are almost always misused given enough time; and then, they become a regular method to punish and discipline students.

15 Principles for Seclusion Rooms

The U.S. Department of Education report recommends schools and districts follow their 15 Principles when considering use of seclusion rooms:

  1. Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion.
  2. Schools should never use mechanical restraints to restrict a child’s freedom of movement, and schools should never use a drug or medication to control behavior or restrict freedom of movement (except as authorized by a licensed physician or other qualified health professional).
  3. Physical restraint or seclusion should not be used except in situations where the child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and other interventions are ineffective, and should be discontinued as soon as imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others has dissipated.
  4. Policies restricting the use of restraint and seclusion should apply to all children, not just children with disabilities.
  5. Any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.
  6. Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline (e.g., placing in seclusion for out-of-seat behavior), as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.
  7. Restraint or seclusion should never be used in a manner that restricts a child’s breathing or harms the child.
  8. The use of restraint or seclusion, particularly when there is repeated use for an individual child, multiple uses within the same classroom, or multiple uses by the same individual, should trigger a review and, if appropriate, revision of strategies currently in place to address dangerous behavior; if positive behavioral strategies are not in place, staff should consider developing them.
  9. Behavioral strategies to address dangerous behavior that results in the use of restraint or seclusion should address the underlying cause or purpose of the dangerous behavior.
  10. Teachers and other personnel should be trained regularly on the appropriate use of effective alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports and, only for cases involving imminent danger of serious physical harm, on the safe use of physical restraint and seclusion.
  11. Teachers and other personnel should be trained regularly on the appropriate use of effective alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports and, only for cases involving imminent danger of serious physical harm, on the safe use of physical restraint and seclusion.
  12. Parents should be informed of the policies on restraint and seclusion at their child’s school or other educational setting, as well as applicable federal, state, or local laws.
  13. Parents should be notified as soon as possible following each instance in which restraint or seclusion is used with their child.
  14. Policies regarding the use of restraint and seclusion should be reviewed regularly and updated as appropriate.
  15. Policies regarding the use of restraint and seclusion should be reviewed regularly and updated as appropriate.

Example of a Seclusion Room Instance Gone Wrong

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO IS GRAPHIC IN NATURE. This video from Melissa Mason’s campaign shows the dangers of seclusion use in public schools. This video was part of a ProPublica investigative report on seclusion uses in  Illinois schools. The State of Illinois placed an emergency ban on all use of seclusion rooms in 2019 — however, the ban was later reversed after local school administrators complained.

Public Reaction to Seclusion Room Use in NHC Schools

With public data showing an incredibly disproportionate number of Seclusion Room instances in New Hanover County when compared to other counties in North Carolina, there’s something fundamentally wrong happening in the district.

Seclusion Room as Discussed at the March NHCS Board Meeting

During New Hanover County School Board’s March meeting, the topic of “Seclusion Rooms” was on the agenda for discussion. 

After a legal presentation and short discussion, the Board of Education wasn’t willing to take a stand to reduce or end the practice of using seclusion rooms. Although much attention has been placed on this practice over the last two years, the idea of changing policy on it’s practice was once again tabled.

Judy Justice, the board member who’s pushed for a complete ban on seclusion room use, stated that the rooms are “almost a form of torture” for New Hanover County school children.

Board member Nelson Beaulieu, who is up for re-election this year, countered Justice’s sentiment. He stated that he supports the use of these solitary confinement cells for school children,

“I’ve yet to see somebody come forward and say, ‘We have a policy, and you’re doing it wrong.’ I’ve yet to see that. And to say that New Hanover County Schools engages in some kind of torture — that’s just not correct. We’re not torturing our children. We’re not ‘almost torturing our children’.”

However, board member Hugh McManus said, “I think we need to deal with it before [the school year] ends”, emphasizing that there needs to be a policy and plan for how teachers should handle students who “lose control” before any vote on eliminating seclusion rooms.

NHCS Candidate, Melissa Mason, Takes Up Cause to Protect Students

As the primary election approaches, Cape Fear Beacon found only one candidate — from either side of the political spectrum — who is standing up to directly fight against the use of Seclusion Rooms in New Hanover County schools. That candidate is Melissa Mason, a military wife and mother of two young boys who currently attend NHC schools.

Melissa Mason is running for Board of Education
“We must investigate why 50% of Seclusion Room use across the entire state of North Carolina is in New Hanover County schools. That is completely unacceptable…
“So far five states have abolished seclusion rooms, so we know it’s possible… Staff who are over-using seclusion need to be retrained or removed. Students who cannot avoid violent behavior need appropriate and consistent consequences.”

We corresponded with Mrs. Mason about her views on the use of seclusion in New Hanover County schools. She told us that her campaign is focused on Student Safety and Parents Rights, and this one issue applies to both of these areas.

Here’s what Mason had to say:

“After hearing of the seclusion rooms over the course of several school board meetings and hearing from several parents, I decided I would look into them. The more I investigated the use of seclusion rooms in our district, the more disturbed I became. The frequency with which they are being used in New Hanover County is alarming. Student safety is central to my campaign, so I cannot ignore this issue. Parents’ rights are also important to me. Parents have no idea how often they’re being used because school policy allows instances under 10 minutes to go unreported. Parents can’t make the best decisions for their children without that information. When schools don’t report every use of seclusion, they usurp parents’ right to decide. School district educators are not co-parents of our kids.

“In speaking with community members and parents, it is clear that there is a great lack of information about these rooms. While some believe the rooms are abhorrent, others question what other options teachers have that can be used to address the situations that arise. When I describe the features and size of these rooms, and how frequently they’re used, everyone is shocked.

I would prefer that these rooms be removed completely.  No data shows that these rooms actually work as intended. And I think this tool is abusive. At a minimum, I would propose a moratorium on the use of the rooms until an investigation is completed and  their over-use in this county is addressed.  We must investigate why 50% of Seclusion Room use across the entire state of North Carolina is in New Hanover County schools.”

NHC Schools to Parents: Seclusion is Legal, There are No Lawsuits

In a January 2020 Port City Daily article, the NHCS spokesperson at the time, Caress Clegg, stated that no lawsuits have been filed against the district in regards to the use of seclusion rooms in the past decade.

Only one complaint has been filed to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) over the last decade. The complaint alleged that only students with disabilities were being placed in seclusion rooms. After completing an investigation in August of 2012, OCR found that NHCS was in compliance with the Greenblatt Act and there were no issues. Their investigation’s conclusion was based on interviews and paperwork provided to them by NHCS staff. No OCR representative visited New Hanover County.

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