Agencies | Governor
Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Education
State Board of Education
[under development] Regulations Governing the Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools in Virginia [8 VAC 20 ‑ 750]
Action Promulgating new regulation governing seclusion & restraint in public elementary & secondary schools
Stage Proposed
Comment Period Ends 4/19/2019
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4/19/19  1:05 am
Commenter: Melanie Lickenfelt

What the School System Taught My Child

To Whom It May Concern,  

I have spent a great deal of time this past month  trying to figure out how to convince key policy makers like yourself—who will likely never fully appreciate the impact restraint & seclusion policy has on the lives of certain children & their families—to regulate it with the utmost respect to human development & wellbeing.  I have fought to compose the perfect message to persuade the public to limit its use to situations that pose a risk to human safety and study it at every opportunity on an individual incident level for prevention. After all that thought, I decided I should tell you a story…

Once upon a time—what feels like a full lifetime ago—I had a happy little boy.  He was sweet and funny and quirky and “strong-willed”. Everyone who met him noticed those pieces of him.  He carried around the Yellow Pages for nearly two years—even sleeping with it—until it was so beaten & battered because it was the biggest book he could find.  His “encyclopedia” that I had to pretend to read to him. He danced his “crab dance” randomly to make me laugh. He prevented other children from smashing bugs because he cared so deeply for all living things.  He was a collector of facts, stuffed animals, dinosaurs, and matchbox cars.

Then, my happy little boy started kindergarten.  Soon after, he stopped smiling—first at school and then at home.  Screams and tears of anguish & rage replaced his sweet smiles. He couldn’t handle all the people, the noise, the demands, the transitions, and the writing.  He was diagnosed with high functioning Autism. His initial behaviors were about avoidance. I know that now. Unfortunately, the worse he acted, the more he was given at school to placate him.  Meltdowns mixed with behaviors—frustration, anger, violence, destruction—and what was once at school bled into the home.

This one and a half years of unstudied unintentionally reinforced behavior led to my son being secluded on the sly and sent home two to three days a week until the middle of his first grade year—undocumented.  Once my son’s behaviors were firmly embedded and I pushed back on the school to find a solution to teach him, I was given an ultimatum to send him to Armstrong’s Comprehensive Service Site (CSS) location or a low functioning Autism program at Lake Anne designed for intellectually disabled Autistic children.  I was told if I did not choose between these two ill-fitting options, Forest Edge would “take the proper actions”—a discussion which referenced the kindness Forest Edge extended to date by not recording his informal suspensions and behavioral outbursts. I was told no other options existed. I knew nothing about private placement or the special needs world I had blindly entered.

Ultimately, my son was sent to Armstrong’s CSS location where he spent the remainder of his first grade year and the beginning of his second grade year in a “support room”—again undocumented, behavior still unstudied.  He basically lived in that “support room” during that time. I know this because I had to park my car and go into the school to get him out nearly every single day. Armstrong’s school program was designed around deterrents & reactive rather than proactive measures so my son failed to learn positive replacement behaviors & coping strategies and he struggled to control himself.  

This remained true until we brought in an expert to change their model, and a single teacher agreed to the expert’s changes during his 2nd grade year.  We saw improvements under her watch, but once my son graduated to another grade under a different teacher, the old deterrent system was once again used.  While at Armstrong, my son told me he did not want to be put in seclusion constantly and would refuse to go to school. With the fear of the “support room” looming and the stress of school building, he began peeing & pooping his pants at school almost daily.  He refused to shower, brush his teeth, and clean up after soiling himself. He started holding in a full school day’s worth of anguish to avoid the “support room” and unleashing it as soon as he got off the bus because I, of course, was a much safer outlet than the school.

For full years, I lost my son.  I lost my family. I lost myself.  My son was hospitalized multiple times during all of this.  The first time was during late winter of his first year of kindergarten at the age of five. He was the youngest person in the ward. Many staff voiced he was the youngest patient they had ever seen.  The last time was the spring of his fourth grade year. I begged the school to help him in any way possible. I begged them to provide one-on-one counseling as every expert insisted he needed to have within the school setting, but I was told the public school system is not intended for that purpose.  

Despite the constant regressions & behaviors, I was told that Armstrong was a success because staff could “manage” my son’s behavior.  Assertions of school success from Armstrong staff were bellowed until my son became so violent at home that the school IEP team advised me to place him in residential care while still refusing to admit their placement & accommodations were failing him and insisting the problem existed on the home front.  How ironic the school system could create the very emotional duress that necessitated counseling while simultaneously leaving my ill-equipped son to face the psychological ramifications and my family to deal with the very real consequences of his subsequent mental collapses?

At the end of my son’s 4th grade year under extreme my advocacy, my son was granted private placement at Phillips Fairfax.  At Phillips, I rediscovered a glimmer of the little boy I lost so long ago. Because his new school focuses on strong incentives and skill building on an institutionalized level and he receives the counseling he needs, I learned he could laugh again.  My son feels supported rather than “bullied” (his words) for the first time at school.

Understand, I am not at all asserting all my son’s problems are solved or that his serious behaviors have completely ceased because they have not.  Learned behavior and mental breakages are incredibly hard to undo and my son is still so emotionally fragile and angry. My family works every single day to be able to support him and admittedly that process can be mentally, physically, & financially draining, BUT under the Phillips program my son has a chance.  He uses the bathroom, bathes, and brushes his teeth. He no longer comes home from school daily crying and raging. He is excited to go to school and comes home talking about things he has learned like other children. The daily nightmare of watching my son come home soiled & wet and explode has stopped—a notable change I could see in just a couple months after he changed school placement.

I will never truly know the damage restraint and seclusion has done to my child.  I only know that I am still fighting to undo the violent outbursts that were unwittingly reinforced for years from a child who was never violent before entering the public school system.  I know I have lost years of supporting him appropriately during a critical developmental period. I know that after behaviors were reinforced at school, he was locked away by school personnel until he found a way to bottle his anger up and unleash it at home.  I know that sending him to Armstrong damaged his relationship with his family. I know he should have been in a classroom and not a seclusion room. I know that if I put him in a seclusion room at home, he would be taken from me and I would be charged with child abuse; I could not assert successful behavior management while using it.  I know the FCPS knew other accommodations & placements existed. And I know if they had my son’s best interest and mental & physical well-being in mind, they would have pushed for those alternatives.

I honestly don’t blame FCPS staff for their ignorance.  My son is complicated. I blame them for their negligence.  I blame them for choosing restraint & seclusion instead of helping him.  I blame them for ignoring their culpability once the violence spread to our home.  I blame them for all the hard choices I have had to make as I have watched my son’s mental well-being and behavior deteriorate as well as those I continue to make to address the remnants of what still remain.  I blame them for the shattered shell of that little boy that I placed in their care and entrusted them to teach years ago.

This experience has led me to believe we must have firm regulations governing seclusion and restraint.  I believe restraint and seclusion have become the easy solution to hard problems in children who have largely been given up on in the school system.  By locking these children away, there problems are all but forgotten at school—leaving their families to pick up the pieces.  These children learn ALL the wrong lessons.  Lessons like control equates to physically overpowering others and home is a safer place to unleash my frustrations due to fear & anxiety of ramifications at school.  In the meantime, lessons related to coping skills, compassion, kindness, respect, and self-restraint are wholly lost.  Sweet smiling children are wholly lost.  I know I miss the boy I had every single day and I cannot understand why a system that does not work at the cost of children is not readily changed.

Thank you for reading my story.


Melanie Lickenfelt

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