School put autistic boy in time-out 'closet,' mom says

Mother complains that school isolated son in room 78 times
Deborah Yetter

The Courier-Journal
Apr. 15, 2008

Photos courtesy of Jeanie Montgomery Crestwood Elementary uses this room to control Matthew Montgomery's behavior.

An Oldham County mother has filed a complaint with the state after learning that Crestwood Elementary officials put her 8-year-old autistic son in a small, empty room nearly 80 times last fall because of his behavior -- sometimes locking him in.

"They keep calling it a time-out room," said Jeanie Montgomery of Centerfield, who has pulled her son from Crestwood. "It is a closet."

Montgomery has filed a sworn complaint with the state Department of Education, alleging the school has violated her son's rights when it locked him in the 32-square-foot room built specifically to deal with disruptive behavior.

Her complaint cites school records showing that Matthew was placed in the room 78 times during an 11-week period last year.

Montgomery said she also has filed several complaints with state child-protective-service officials over the school's use of the time-out room, as well as recent instances in which she says Matthew came home with cuts and scrapes that she believes happened at school.

"I am afraid for his safety," said Montgomery, adding that her son has limited speech because of his autism and can't describe what happened.

Oldham school officials deny any abuse and are cooperating fully with child-protective services, spokeswoman Rebecca DeSensi said

DeSensi and Anne Coorssen, general counsel for the Oldham school system, said they couldn't comment on details of Matthew's case because of federal laws that govern student confidentiality.

The school follows state Department of Education guidelines for using time-out rooms, which are part of most of the district's classrooms for special-needs students, DeSensi said.

"Our policy in this district is to ensure student safety," she said.

Should be last defense

Department of Education guidelines, issued in 2000, state that placing a student in seclusion is a "drastic measure that should only be used as a last defense measure" and that schools should "never lock a student in a closed setting."

Montgomery said the school removed a lock from the time-out room's door in December after she complained.

Coorssen said the lock on the outside of the door was placed there to keep students from entering the room -- not to lock people in. She said school officials ordered it removed as soon as they learned of it and are investigating to determine who placed it there.

"There was a lock placed on the door," she said. "If they were using that to lock a student in, that would be a problem."

She said school officials have not taken action against any employees in the matter.

Chris George, a private therapist who spent several hours observing Matthew in class Nov. 12 at his mother's request, said he saw the boy locked in the time-out room four times.

After hearing George's report, Montgomery said she visited the classroom Nov. 28 and found Matthew again locked in the time-out room. She said she had to wait while the teacher released him.

Coorssen said the school board has reviewed its policies on time out with principals and teachers and reminded them of the state education department guidelines.

DeSensi said Oldham County officials are trying to work with Montgomery to resolve her concerns about her son's education.

"We have cooperated with the family," she said.

But Montgomery and George, who is one of two therapists working with Matthew, attended a series of meetings with school officials to resolve problems and said they met only bureaucratic delays.

"They never would give me direct answers," Montgomery said.

She acknowledges her son can be disruptive but said his education plan calls for teachers to try other methods of calming him, such as distracting or soothing him, before using time out.

Though the time-out room is only supposed to be used for aggressive behavior, the school's records show in many cases, Matthew was placed in it for minor transgressions, such as not following directions or dropping a pencil, the complaint said.

On March 28, Coorssen sent Montgomery's lawyer a letter offering to settle her March 10 complaint to the Education Department in part by an "immediate transfer to another elementary school." But Montgomery would first have to sign an agreement that "the time-out issues have been satisfactorily resolved," Coorssen's letter said.

Montgomery said she's not willing to do that.

"It's just not right," she said. "If they were using the right interventions with him, I don't think we would have this problem."

The state Education Department has assigned a mediator to try to resolve the complaint.

Heavy-handed approach

Officials with Bullitt and Jefferson County public schools say their policies do not allow a disruptive or upset child to be placed alone in a locked room.

"That doesn't seem to be something I could justify," said Janet Leitner, a former school principal who serves as elementary school liaison for Jefferson County Public Schools. "I would wonder what the child is learning in that situation."

In Bullitt or Jefferson counties, students may be placed in time out -- but that generally involves seating them in a separate area of the classroom or, in more serious cases, sending them to the principal or counselor's office, officials said.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the use of time-out rooms is a concern for his agency, which often gets calls from parents about alleged abuse of the rooms. Brooks said he hasn't tracked how many, but the calls come in fairly regularly.

"My guess in this particular instance is that it's happening in far too many schoolhouses across the state," Brooks said.

George and Meghan Launius, the other therapist working with Matthew, say they are troubled by the boy's treatment, particularly by the locked time-out room. They said the room, when they last viewed it, had no carpet, was poorly lit and had paper taped over a narrow window, blocking the view into the room.

"It is a very heavy-handed approach," said George, a certified behavior analyst with a master's degree in education. "He deserves much better than what he's getting."

DeSensi said the room is 32 square feet in size, is carpeted, well-lit and has a window in the door that is not to be blocked. But she wouldn't let The Courier-Journal see or photograph the room, saying the school was closed for spring break so the floors could be waxed.

Coorssen said time out is used for students only with parents' permission.

Montgomery acknowledged that Matthew's "Individual Education Plan" allows for time out, but she said she thought that meant separating him from other students to allow him to calm down -- not locking him in a room.

Injuries were reported

Coorssen said she couldn't comment about Montgomery's allegations that Matthew had come home from school with cuts and scrapes, including what appeared to be nail gouges in his arm.

But she said staff and teachers are trained on how to safely manage children without injuring them.

In one of her complaints to state child-protective-service officials, Montgomery alleges that on March 28, Matthew got off the school bus with his face and chest covered with small red marks and what appeared to be abrasions on his back and shoulders.

On the advice of her pediatrician, Montgomery said she took him to Kosair Children's Hospital for evaluation.

Discharge paperwork shows the hospital reported the injuries to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services as suspected abuse.

Montgomery said she's frustrated because she doesn't believe state child protection workers are taking the abuse allegations seriously. She said a supervisor told her at one point to work out the problem with school officials.

Jim Grace, a supervisor in Frankfort who oversees child-abuse investigations, said confidentiality laws prevent him from discussing individual cases. But he said the state takes all abuse allegations very seriously.

And cases involving an outside entity, such as a school or day care, get an extra level of review from supervisors, he said.

Montgomery said she would like Matthew to return to school but doesn't want him to go back to Crestwood Elementary and is asking the district to provide alternatives.

"He has a right to be at school and he has a right to be safe," she said.

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