Castle Rock, CO

DougCo elementary school uses excessive restraint on second-grader

Suzie Glassman
Wildcat Mountain ElementaryPhoto byDouglas County School District

By: Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver

(Castle Rock, CO) When Christine Nichol followed her excited 8-year-old into his second-grade classroom after the school’s art festival, she had no idea her life was about to change. Pointing to a door in the back of the room with a small curtain-covered window and a QR code with her son’s name, she asked about the room’s purpose.

“Oh, that? That’s the torture room,” her son said. “Do you mean the quiet room,” Nichol asked.

She knew her son’s affective needs (AN) classroom (for kids with social, emotional, and behavioral issues) had a quiet room to calm down and regulate their emotions. Still, she had no idea until she opened the door that night that it was a 5’x5’ space with two pillows on the ground, no windows, and a closed curtain.

A sinking feeling in her gut came over her remembering the countless times her son came home saying he’d been in the quiet room that day. For three years, he’d been sent to what Nichols calls a closet, and no one at Wildcat Elementary had told her.

Nichol’s discovery kicked off a series of events that eventually led a state complaint officer (SCO) with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) to declare the DougCo school district denied her son his right to a free and appropriate education and violated multiple tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Protection of Persons from Restraint Act (PPRA).

Nichol is now on a crusade to make sure the district changes its policies regarding restraint and seclusion and wants to ensure other kids don’t suffer the same excessive punishment as her son.

When asked for comment, the district said that beyond the facts in the SCO's decision, the district could not comment on an individual student matter.

“DCSD special education staff members are dedicated to providing outstanding services to students in collaboration with parents. The behavioral interventions used by the District are based upon individual circumstances of each incident and are designed and intended to protect all students from injury to self or others,” said the statement.

Problems at school

Nichol's son (who will go unnamed at her request) showed signs of Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder as early as preschool and was on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a serious emotional disability. He also had a behavior intervention plan.

As a single mom, Nichol’s said she did the best she could but had little to no knowledge of what her son needed and expected the school to let her know if she should have him evaluated for something like autism or another disorder.

“They repeatedly told me he was fine,” said Nichol. “But clearly, he wasn’t.”

After school returned in person in the Fall of 2021, Nichol watched her son’s behavior worsen. According to the state complaint ruling, after winter break, he became “dysregulated more frequently, yelling and threatening others in the AN classroom, throwing objects, and refusing to work.”

In early February, the school suspended him for kicking his teacher, then called the Sherriff’s office on him two days later when he continued reacting violently.

Nichol took him home for a few days, not knowing that school staff was meeting without her or her son’s IEP team to decide how to handle his behavior. They devised a plan to set him up in an empty office called the Blue Room, where he would spend the next 26 days.

According to the complaint, an AN teacher and two paraprofessionals rotated into the Blue Room for 20 minutes for sensory work, learning, and free choice. He couldn’t see his peers or attend recess or specials.

The report states, “The District did not convene the student’s IEP Team or conduct any additional assessments to help determine whether his behavior supports were being implemented properly and, if so, why they were not working.”

While in the Blue Room, Nichol’s son continued to act aggressively, citing 40 behavioral incidents from verbal and physical aggression to yelling and ripping wallpaper off the walls and breaking the drywall.

Nichol had no idea what was happening until after he’d spent weeks in that room.

Teachers must fill out incident reports when a student is restrained, no matter how long. Those reports are tallied and sent to the state to determine the total number of restraints used on students in the district.

But, this teacher, who is no longer with the district, filed only one incident report on Nichol’s son for the entire year.

The Reset Room
The Reset RoomPhoto byChristine Nichol

When staff felt the Blue Room was no longer safe, they moved him back to the AN classroom but set up his “office” in the 5’x5’ reset room with a desk.

They told Nichol about using the reset room for his education, but Nichol said she was emphatic that they not close the door. “He has panic attacks when someone holds a door shut on him,” she told them.

When Nichol finally saw the room, she couldn’t believe that’s where he spent his days and went to file a complaint with the DougCo Sherrif, who referred her back to the school resource officer (SRO).

Nichol said the SRO told her that her son is not in a good place when he goes there.

“What do you think is going to happen when you’re locked in a closet,” she said. “I thought it was child abuse, and I told him so.”

Finding help and filing a complaint

Nichol’s fight to get the school district to admit wrongdoing and stop the excessive use of restraint on her son might have ended there if it hadn’t been for a friend who told her to seek out an advocate through PEAK Parent Center.

PEAK then connected her with ARC Colorado and Disability Law Colorado.

PEAK and ARC provide advocacy services for children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities and help families navigate the complicated world of IDEA law and its enforcement.

Once Nichol found a lawyer and advocate, she filed a state complaint accusing DougCo of denying her son a free and appropriate education and improperly restraining him.

Specifically, the complaint says the district failed to develop, review and revise her son’s IEP to meet his behavioral needs and educate him in the least restrictive environment as required by law.

It also accused the district of secluding her son in a non-emergency situation, not considering less restrictive alternatives, failing to end the seclusion when it was no longer necessary, secluding him in a space without adequate lighting, ventilation, and size, failing to ensure staff were properly trained, and failing to document and notify when they used seclusion.

The state ruling

After a 60-day investigation, the state complaint officer ruled in favor of Nichol in every count except that the reset room was not an adequate seclusion space.

The state awarded Nichol’s son 30 hours of specialized instruction and two hours of mental health services.

The complaint, which details strict deadlines, ordered the district to submit a corrective action plan to address the violations in the decision..

DougCo must show that the district’s director of special education, behavioral consultant, behavioral specialist, principal, and special education staff at Wildcat Mountain complete training provided by the department of education

The district must also determine whether other students in Nichol’s son’s class are eligible for compensatory services based on the fact that the teacher used a level system for students to earn recess, lunch in the cafeteria, and specials.

Beyond Nichol’s case, the officer concluded that many of the violations are a systemic problem within the district and are likely to impact the future provisions of IDEA-eligible students.

State complaint rulings are final but can be appealed through a Due Process Complaint that involves the court system and a judge’s order. There is no indication that the district will not comply.

Nichol’s son is now at a different elementary school, and she says he likes it there. She and her attorney are considering other avenues for arguing her son’s case and seeking justice for how he was treated.

“It’s not about the money,” said Nichol. “They’ve scarred my son for life. It’s about what’s right for these kids.

“My mission in life is to eliminate seclusion rooms in Douglas County and let other parents know what’s going on. I don’t know how long it will take me to fix it, but the county needs to be held accountable.”

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I'm a reporter covering the Douglas County School District in Colorado.

Denver, CO

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