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After U.S. Department of Justice investigators found that Frederick County Public Schools had “unnecessarily and repeatedly” secluded and physically restrained students with disabilities in violation of federal law, Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) is asking the Maryland State Department of Education to launch an independent investigation into that school system.
“These parents and teachers allege that supervisory staff were aware of abuse of students, assaults on teachers and stonewalled inquiries and retaliated against parents,” Hough, who is running for Frederick County executive in 2022, wrote in a letter to state Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury on Tuesday. “Without question the information in this report and the Justice Department report demand a full investigation by your office.”
The Maryland State Department of Education did not say whether they would pursue an independent investigation.
The department “will be working with Frederick County Public Schools to ensure they implement the corrective action plan fully and robustly,” Lora Rakowski, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education, replied in an email.
“We will also be doing a top to bottom review of existing regulations, processes and procedures and looking into this issue across the state to ensure that this — or other — discriminatory activity does not occur in the future anywhere in Maryland,” she continued.
Asked why a separate state investigation was important, Hough said Tuesday: “We already had state laws [on student seclusion and restraint] in place, and [Frederick County Public Schools] violated those. Why would we then trust the same group of people to implement positive change?”
“Before you try to solve a problem, you need to understand the depth of the problem,” he continued.
Federal investigators found more than 7,250 instances when students with disabilities at Frederick County Public Schools were improperly restrained or secluded. Those cases involved 125 students, including some as young as 5 years old.
Justice Department settlement
The Justice Department opened the investigation in October 2020 and reviewed two and a half years worth of data on behavioral interventions in the school district starting in fall 2017. Justice officials disclosed that a settlement was reached with Frederick County Public Schools earlier this month.
They found that Frederick County Public Schools violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
Maryland law does not allow school personnel to use exclusion, restraint or seclusion until less harmful interventions have been considered.
In the settlement with the Justice Department, Frederick County Public Schools agreed to stop secluding students, report all instances of restraint, train staff on proper behavioral interventions for students with disabilities and design protocols for handling complaints about restraints.
Seclusion and restraint triggered some students to engage in self-harm and show signs of trauma, but Frederick County Public Schools did not stop secluding students even though students showed that they were in crisis, according to federal investigators. The seclusion practices caused students with disabilities to miss weeks and sometimes months of instructional time, justice department officials said.
In the 2017-2018 school year, part of the period covered in the investigation, Frederick County reported more than 2,100 uses of physical restraint and 837 instances of seclusion. At the same time, Montgomery County, a school district with more than double Frederick County’s student population, had 1,656 uses of restraint and 723 instances of seclusion, according to state data.
Frederick County reported the highest use of physical restraint and seclusion among all 24 school districts in Maryland.
The trend continued into the 2018-2019 school year, with Frederick County reporting almost 2,000 uses of physical restraint and 1,600 uses of seclusion. In that period, Montgomery County recorded 1,356 uses of restraint and 602 uses of seclusion, according to state data.
Missing from the settlement is holding accountable those school personnel who were responsible for the abuse, Hough said.
Longtime superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools Terry Alban retired two weeks after the Justice Department announced the settlement, but Hough said there are more people in top roles who need to be held accountable.
The Frederick County Board of Education will pay Alban more than $800,000 over the next year and a half, as a part of the settlement agreement; the payout includes Alban’s contracted salary and pension benefits, as well as more than $367,000 for unused leave time, The Frederick News-Post reported. Alban’s contract was set to expire in June 2023.
Hough said his office had received calls from parents, teachers and others within the school system since news of the federal investigation came out. In his own report released on Tuesday, Hough shared testimonies from nine parents and teachers who chronicled how students were secluded and restrained.
One parent told Hough that she was not made aware that her autistic son was restrained 33 times at Spring Ridge Elementary School until a staff member from his middle school told her, after reviewing his records. She said her son required counseling after being restrained and put in an exclusion room. And, although she informed the Board of Education of concerns, they took no action.
Another parent said that her non-verbal autistic son was restrained 12 times in one day in Rock Creek School, a school for students with disabilities. School officials put him in a seclusion room for more than 20 minutes at a time and he soon developed violent behaviors, she said. Although Frederick County Public Schools had denied her request to enroll her son in a non-public school, the school district approved her request after she filed a report with Maryland State Department of Education.
A teacher told Hough that classrooms are regularly in “chaos,” and that a student broke 16 windows at Spring Ridge Elementary at one time. Teachers are regularly assaulted by students and no reports are taken, she continued. And she said teachers were given little information on the federal investigation.
It was during the legislative special session earlier this month that Hough first called for the state to investigate. During a lengthy address on the Senate floor, he shared some of the testimonies from parents and teachers who had contacted him.
Hough said he hopes an independent state investigation would lead to the dismissal of employees in supervisory roles who violated state and federal law by allowing abuse to continue.
“I think it’s the people at the top of the command who are the ones responsible for this situation … the supervisory folks have got to be held to account,” Hough said. And the school district will need more resources and training for teachers and staff who remain in the school system, he added.
Asked whether the school district had identified personnel who were aware of or participated in improper use of seclusion and restraint, Frederick County Public Schools spokesman Brandon Oland said that the district cannot share details on personnel matters. He said Frederick County Public Schools cooperated with the federal investigation, and similarly would cooperate with any investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education.