STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Do we really know what public schools are doing to control troubled kids? Sometimes teachers seclude and restrain children. They mainly do this to students with disabilities or special needs who are considered dangerous to themselves or others. The government tells districts to report every time this happens, and tens of thousands of cases are reported. Yet people who track this issue suspect the numbers fall short. Reporters from two of our member stations have been investigating, and we start in Fairfax, Va., with Jenny Abamu of WAMU.
JENNY ABAMU, BYLINE: Every time Jennifer Tidd's son was secluded or restrained at school, she received a letter from his teachers. Her son has autism and behavioral issues, and in three years, Tidd got more than 400 letters. We sat in her living room thumbing through the stack of papers as her son played a recorder nearby.
JENNIFER TIDD: I see this pile of documents that's 5 inches tall that represents hundreds of hours of being locked into a room, and I feel, you know, horrible. And I'm actually embarrassed that, you know, what kind of parent lets their - lets this happen to their child?
ABAMU: For years, Tidd's district, Fairfax County, told the federal government this wasn't happening, that it never secluded or restrained students. That can mean anything from holding or using restraints on a student to isolating them in a separate room. But documents obtained by WAMU revealed hundreds of cases in Fairfax County. And Fairfax isn't the only district struggling to accurately report. Jackie Nowicki works for the Government Accountability Office, basically the federal government's watchdog. She says media reports and testimony from lawmakers lead them to believe that many districts aren't following the rules.
JACKIE NOWICKI: When seclusion and restraint is inappropriately used, it can create some really dangerous situations.
ABAMU: In early May, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said her department is auditing some districts where the numbers don't appear to add up. Following the WAMU investigation, Fairfax County is now reporting almost 1,700 cases of seclusion and restraint for the 2017-'18 school year alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCOTT BRABRAND: It is clear that as a system we have fallen short. I pledge to you...
ABAMU: At a school board meeting in April, Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the district is trying to make things right, and...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRABRAND: To heal the hurt and systematically address these concerns around restraint and seclusion.
ABAMU: Jennifer Tidd still thinks about all the time her son spent in the district's seclusion rooms, which look like concrete closets. Tidd's son has very limited verbal capability, and Tidd says the repeated seclusions traumatized him, making him more violent and causing him to hate school.
TIDD: He would poop and pee himself to get out of the seclusion room. He was so desperate to get out. This is a child who's completely potty trained since he was 5.
ABAMU: The school district wouldn't comment on Tidd's case. Her son is 13 now, and Fairfax County pays for him to attend a private school for students with disabilities. Tidd says he hasn't been secluded once in the seven months he's been there, and his behavior has dramatically improved. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Abamu in Washington, D.C.
ROB MANNING, BYLINE: And I'm Rob Manning in Vancouver, Wash., with 10-year-old Landon.
LANDON: I have something called Asperger's syndrome, which is a specialty type of autism, where - well, I can get really obsessed with things I like.
MANNING: Landon also has things he really does not like. And he isn't always in control of how he reacts to them. Landon remembers getting so upset once in class that he ran off. School staff chased him.
LANDON: They shoved me to the ground. They grabbed my wrist, and they dragged me up the hill by my wrist. And then they hugged me in just, like, a wrestling grip.
MANNING: Like many states, Washington requires that parents like Landon's mom, Sarah McPartland, be notified whenever a child is restrained.
SARAH MCPARTLAND: But the law also states that it should be talked about. The parent and child should come in to talk about it, which never occurred in any of our cases.
MANNING: McPartland is one of many parents in the community who say incidents of restraint aren't always reported to them, and that breakdown has consequences for families. In McPartland's case, she heard about Landon's restraint months later from an employee who had left the district.
MCPARTLAND: It's never great to be in a position as a parent when you got to go back to your child and say I heard that this happened and that you're sorry, and the response from your child is, what does it matter? You weren't there to help me.
MANNING: District officials declined to comment on Landon's case. The district settled a lawsuit from Landon's family, but it did not admit any wrongdoing. Incidents of restraint and seclusion seem to be on the rise in Vancouver. The most recent numbers show an increase of more than 50% from the year before. The district says that increase could have been caused by a number of things, including program changes or changes to the student population. In many cases, the same students are being restrained multiple times. That's what happened to Cara Bailey's son, Colin. The 12-year-old has autism and is mostly nonverbal.
CARA BAILEY: The only way that we realized that he was getting restrained was he came home with handprints on him.
MANNING: Bailey says a child psychiatrist diagnosed Colin with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he throws fits just passing by a school in the car.
BAILEY: That trust was broken for him. And it has a huge effect on him.
MANNING: Today, Bailey homeschools her son. Many educators say they don't want to restrain students but sometimes it's necessary to keep the student, teachers and other kids safe. And at times, restraints can help. Landon says he once had an aide who was able to calm him down.
LANDON: She didn't hold me down. She just sort of constrained me - like, tight pressure, which actually was kind of relaxing.
MANNING: But it's hard to do a restraint perfectly, especially in the middle of a chaotic classroom. Teachers often get injured.
JOEL NIXON: So being trained, being mentored, and then having actual experience is important for staff working with kids who become escalated and dangerous.
MANNING: Joel Nixon is a school social worker in nearby Clackamas, Ore. He's spent 20 years working with students with disabilities. He says, more and more, educators are learning to address the needs of individual kids with disabilities before they get physical. Nixon says that will make for safer classrooms and better long-term outcomes.
NIXON: Not only will they not be restrained at school, they won't grow up to be adults that have difficulties with physical aggression and dangerous behavior.
MANNING: But first, schools need more staff and training. And that means more money, a resource that's already stretched in public schools.
For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Vancouver, Wash.