Duval Schools Incident Highlights Need For Discussion In Treatment Of Special Needs Students

Nov 3, 2016
Originally published on November 2, 2016 10:41 pm

A Duval County teacher has been suspended for putting an autistic student in a closet.

The teacher claims the act was to calm the student down, highlighting  differences in what is considered appropriate ways to deal with special needs students.

The Incident

Alimacani Elementary Pre-K teacher Linda Haggard has been suspended without pay for five days for repeatedly putting an autistic student in a closet until he settled down before nap time. A district investigation report said the closet was a 6-by-12-foot room with book shelves and a chair inside.

Assistant teacher Andrea Little said in the report Haggard would put the student in the closet with the door partially open, but if he didn’t calm down, she’d close the door and sometimes turn out the light, checking on him after 30 seconds. She said this concerned her and she’d also threaten other children with the closet, using it as a punishment.

Haggard claimed she would usually be in the closet, cradling the child, and she never locked the door. Haggard’s teacher mentor Kelly Kirton backed Haggard’s claims in the report, saying the closet was a calming tactic, not punishment.

The child is described in the report as a “runner,” frequently  running from the classroom. It said after he was diagnosed with autism at the end of last year, he was transferred to a school better equipped for his autism.

Suspension

School Board members voted to suspend her for exercising poor judgement because she left the child unattended.

The Duval Direct of Exception Student Education Gail Roberts said in the report, “There are no circumstances under which a child is placed in a closet, or even a small place, unattended or locked.”

The district's letter to Haggard said this is not an appropriate de-escalation technique.

Florida law allows teachers to use some forms of seclusion and restraint, with conditions. For example, parents must be notified, and the room has to be lit.

The Research

A recent NPR and Propublica analysis showed the practices of secluding and restraining students are common, and those tactics were used in the U.S. more than 260,000 times in 2011.

Propublica scored states by how closely they follow U.S. Department  of Education guidelines for restraining and secluding children. The lowest score was 0 and Florida received a 2. Florida doesn't limit restraining or secluding children to emergency situations.

Among the highest rated states are Georgia, which received a score of 12, where seclusion is completely banned.

According to the NPR analysis, federal education officials are seeking to limit these practices.

Retention

Even the most experienced special education teachers face challenges, and 8 percent of Florida ESE educators, which teach students with special needs, are not specifically certified to teach students with disabilities.

The classes have some of the highest teacher vacancy rates, including unfilled positions and teachers not qualified to teach specific subjects.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

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