Around lunchtime in early October, a fifth grader on crutches tried to walk away from Lake Shore Elementary School. He was going home, he said. But he didn’t have permission to leave school.
He was still near the front of the building, tottering ahead of his protesting principal, by the time a member of Vancouver Public Schools’ security team arrived.
The staffer told the student to wait for his mother. When he refused, the staffer grabbed the student’s arm. The student pushed, kicked and punched.
“After approximately 10 minutes of restraining him, he dropped one of the crutches and became more aggressive because he couldn’t get away,” the security staffer wrote in a report hours later.
He noted the hobbled student became “too hard to control” — so he took him to the ground.
“I took him down to his stomach and put his hands behind his back and my right knee on his lower back,” wrote the security guard.
The security guard, which the district calls “resource officers,” held him to the ground for 18 minutes, telling the fifth grader he had to calm down to be let up.
What the security guard describes in the report would violate Washington law. And it’s one of a dozen recent uses of restraints at the district in the past year that could be considered illegal.
OPB reviewed 440 pages of incident reports completed by the guards on a regular basis. The records show guards used prohibited restraint tactics at least through December, over a year after they became illegal.
The records emerge as the Vancouver district faces criticism for using illegal restraints last fall, when a district resource officer pinned a seventh grader at Gaiser Middle School face down on the concrete for about 20 minutes, as OPB first reported.
In light of that event, state education officials are calling for new training at the Vancouver school district. And the school says it is taking steps to curb security officers’ use of restraints across the board.
Last month, the district apologized to the seventh grader and his family. When asked to comment on other, unpublicized incidents, the district did not refute that the restraints occurred.
“Every situation of restraint is unique and nuanced,” district spokesperson Jessica Roberts said in an email.
Roberts added that officers’ descriptions “may not utilize preferred and precise terminology.”
“The district is taking steps to provide additional training in several areas, including report writing,” she said.
Restraints deemed dangerous
Last June, teachers at a facility known as the Jim Tangeman Center couldn’t get a student off a table. The student sat there, yelled, and reportedly “swatted” at nearby staff.
Two officers arrived to help. They carried the student from the room while he thrashed and spit, they reported. Released in the hallway, the student balled up a raised fist and moved toward them.
The officers said they then “took the student to the ground.” Each of them pinned one of the student’s shoulders as the student yelled about his ability to breathe.
“I checked my down pressure, ensuring it was over the shoulder and not excessive,” the officer wrote. They held him there for nearly a minute, the report said, and then released him.
It was only recently that it became illegal to restrain a student against the ground. But the practice, as with isolation rooms, is among many that advocacy groups have fought to reform in the name of student safety.
In September 2021, the state officially made it illegal to restrain a child against the ground — either “supine,” meaning on their back, or “prone,” meaning on their stomach. They also banned restraining students against a wall, and any holds that interfere with breathing.
As with law enforcement and kneeling on a suspect, advocacy groups call the restraints too dangerous and potentially lethal.
“You can kill someone if you sit on them or restrain them in prone or supine [positions] because you can inhibit their breathing,” said Andrea Kadlec, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Washington. “They’re actually very, very dangerous practices.”
Following the incident at Gaiser Middle School, OPB obtained copies of incident reports completed by the guards between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2022. In them, the guards documented more than 100 incidents across the district, from breaking up fights between students to shooing away the occasional trespasser.
OPB identified about 40 incidents in which officers either took a student to the ground in some fashion or pushed them up against a wall or table.
Among those physical altercations, many reports lack details as to whether the guards used prohibited tactics. Often, they describe “taking students to the ground,” but do not show exactly what is occurring once there.
However, about a dozen reports expressly describe restraining a student either on their stomach or back. Last May, when a student had reportedly tied a sweatshirt around his neck and had tried to use a chunk of drywall to cut his wrists, one guard put it plainly:
“I performed a leg sweep controlling him to the ground in a face-down prone position. Once on the ground, [another guard] cleared his hands of any objects. I maintained control of his right arm and upper body while [the other guard] controlled the left arm and the lower body.”
Even without restraint, the takedowns can still result in injury.
One report showed a Fort Vancouver High School student chipped a tooth last May after a guard, attempting to break up a fight, “took him to the ground.”
In another case, a guard’s takedown led a student to hit his head against a wall hard enough that the school called the paramedics. The paramedic didn’t examine the student after the student’s father declined.
State education officials said restraints, even the ones that are allowed, are meant to be used in emergency situations. Lee Collyer, of the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said districts across the state likely use restraints too frequently.
“We’re not saying every use is inappropriate,” he said. “I think it just begs the question whether there are that many emergencies.”
Collyer acknowledged that an “emergency” can be difficult to define. It could include a student with a weapon, students actively fighting, or students trying to harm themselves.
District resource officers
The security staff operates in a particularly gray area in the day-to-day at Vancouver schools. But when controversial grapples and restraints are used, records show, they are often involved.
Their role in the district is as much about protecting schools from outside threats, according to district policy. They can carry tasers, pepper spray and handcuffs. And they can wear body armor.
Yet there is no license or certification required to become a district resource officer. And while district policy requires any paraeducator or teacher to be certified in order to restraint students, it doesn’t require that of the officers.
In Vancouver, staff are predominantly trained on a program called the Crisis Prevention Institute. But, in interviews, district officials said that no officers are currently certified under that program.
According to Kevin Gadaire, supervisor of security at the district, officers undergo at least one weeklong training a year. That training does include practices for handling trauma, such as de-escalating a situation. Two days out of that week focus on “defensive tactics,” Gadaire said.
The officers are often called into difficult circumstances, the reports show. They are punched, scratched and kicked while breaking up fights. Students sometimes spit at them.
Most difficult cases involve students with complex behavioral health issues. Among the nearly 40 incidents OPB focused on, 25 involved students at the Jim Tangeman Center, which specializes in enrolling such students.
Last March, at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, a teacher radioed for help. A student was getting out of control.
The guard arrived to find the student in the classroom. He was pacing, as he often did when agitated. But then the student began to rip at his teacher’s calendar.
The guard moved to stop the student. The student then responded with swinging fists. Then, the guard and a paraeducator both took the student to the ground and held him there.
For the next three minutes, the student didn’t calm down, the guard’s report said. He began to bang his head against the ground repeatedly. Then, somehow, he broke free.
In that moment, the guard concluded his presence only seemed to frustrate the student. So he left the room.
“Seeing how I was the trigger and causing him to be further escalated, I removed myself from the room,” the guard wrote. “[The student] calmed down and eventually sat on the floor.”
State recommending changes
Although district officials did not explicitly comment on the documented uses of potentially prohibited practices at its schools, they did acknowledge they are taking steps to cut down on restraints.
The Vancouver school district ranked second in the entire state in restraint use in the 2019-20 school year, the latest data published by state. Staff restrained students 880 times. All but 11 cases involved students with disabilities.
Comparatively, a slightly larger district in the same county — Evergreen School District — ranked 40th with 134 restraints that same year.
Daniel Bettis, executive director of special services at Vancouver Public Schools, said the district is actively making changes. He said the district is currently reviewing how it trains its district resource officers.
And, according to Bettis, the district has a relatively new position whose role includes monitoring restraint use. That position was created in 2020. The district used to rely on schools to monitor themselves.
The district also recently implemented a training program to help staff de-escalate students. The program trains them to use physical pads when a student is lashing out. The pads aim to eliminate the need for holds or restraints.
“We as a Special Ed department have really focused our attention around how to impact that [restraint] data,” Bettis said.
Some of those upcoming changes are also being encouraged by the state, records show. State officials opened an inquiry into Vancouver School District following the face-down restraint at Gaiser Middle School.
In an 18-page letter, state officials wrote the restraint did not impact the student’s breathing — but it did violate the law.
The state officials urged the district to make several changes before the end of the year, including getting retrained by a state representative on prohibited practices and the use of restraints.