Colin and Landon used to be students in the Vancouver Public Schools. But after years of being held, grabbed, carried and isolated, they’re at home.
Colin, 12, is on the autism spectrum. His mother, Cara Bailey, says he’s still recovering from what he experienced at school.
“He is healing from trauma,” she said. “It got to the point where he was put in isolation rooms for hours. He would strip and urinate on his clothes so that he could go home. He wasn’t treated like a human, and he wasn’t respected.”
In a 130-page lawsuit filed last June, the Baileys alleged Colin suffered years of physical and psychological injury from being isolated and restrained, often without his parents knowing.
They acknowledge in the lawsuit that Colin can be violent — hitting, biting or pulling hair if he felt “overwhelmed,” or even when he wants to “gain an adult’s attention.” But the parents suggest that trained, sensitive educators can avoid those problems.
In the 2016-17 school year — the last year there’s available data — Vancouver Public Schools restrained students 1,110 times. That’s an average of once an hour, every day of school throughout that year and more than virtually any large district in Washington or Oregon. And it’s likely an undercount, judging by parents and paraeducators who say incidents are not always reported.
Cara Bailey says that between a lack of documentation from schools and Colin’s limited verbal skills, she was in the dark about her son’s restraints.
“The only way that we realized that he was being restrained was he came home with handprints on him,” Bailey said.
Bailey said she didn’t want to believe that educators were responsible for Colin’s bruises. She remembers that she “physically dragged” her son into school once.
“You expect that they’re there to educate him and keep him safe,” she said. “That trust was broken for him, and it has a huge effect on him.”
Bailey’s legal filing included a 2018 letter from Colin’s doctor alleging post-traumatic stress disorder from his treatment at school.
Another Case Against Vancouver
Landon is also on the autism spectrum; he’s high-functioning with cognitive skills that exceed many kids who haven't been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Landon’s family also sued Vancouver Public Schools over alleged violations of state and federal laws protecting children with disabilities.
At home on a chilly February day, Landon moved quickly from brewing tea to looking at salamander eggs through a microscope to painting small figurines that are part of his favorite game, War Hammer 40,000.
“It’s really, just an insanely complicated strategy game,” Landon said matter-of-factly.
Landon’s mother has gone from teaching at a Vancouver elementary school to homeschooling her son and daughter.
Landon had conflicts with his teachers as early as first grade, with his first restraint occurring just two weeks into the 2015-16 school year. Documents show Landon might knock things over, climb on furniture or throw classroom items.
“Our son was restrained six times in two months when he was in first grade,” McPartland said.
More restraints followed, but McPartland said the district would document the ones that were consistent with how educators were trained, such as firm hugs intended to both keep kids safe and calm them down. But McPartland said Landon could also be grabbed, pushed or pulled in other ways that weren’t consistent with training — and she says those incidents weren’t documented. Vancouver officials say that all restraints should be documented, and if they’re discovered later, they’re investigated.
“A lot of the frustrations were around not being understood," McPartland said.
Educators would judge Landon by his intelligence and strong reading ability, his mom said, while disregarding how his disability affects his social interactions and behavior. Much like with his friend Colin, educators would routinely respond to Landon’s difficulties by restraining him, his mother said
Laws in Oregon and Washington limit the use of restraint and isolation to situations where students are a harm to themselves or others, and educators haven’t been able to calm students using other approaches. Both states require educators to document the incidents and inform parents right away.
“The law also states that it should be talked about — the parent and child should come in and talk about it — which never occurred in any of our cases,” McPartland said.
Officials in Vancouver Public Schools declined to address the situations of specific children like Colin and Landon, even if parents gave written permission.
Teachers and paraeducators say they’re often doing the best they can in a system that lacks adequate resources for students with intense psychological and behavioral needs. Educators point out that frustration and restraints are a bad outcome for everyone involved, not just students. Dealing with students who have become violent is disappointing and dangerous for educators says longtime special education aide Kathy Forbes.
“We have been hit and kicked and bit and scratched. Our hair has been pulled; there are people who’ve been kicked in the head,” said Forbes, who spent many years in special ed classrooms in Oregon’s Tillamook School District.
“We’ve had people with broken bones.”
Forbes said the best approach is to be proactive, by knowing the child, noticing what’s happening, and intervening before things get out of hand. Those steps require training, experience and sufficient staff, and parents agree with educators that those resources are often inadequate in Oregon and Washington schools, including Vancouver.
Vancouver school officials said that there are systems in place to help students like Colin and Landon. Vancouver’s executive director of special services, Daniel Bettis, said the district often creates “behavior intervention plans” for students likely to act out.
“[The behavior plan] has to be in place, and that is specific to the student as far as interventions to support the youngster,” he said. “So there’s a less likelihood of the need for isolations or restraints.”
But even with those plans, educators restrain or isolate students dozens of times a week in Vancouver. Officials say mandatory annual trainings have shifted in recent years toward “de-escalation strategies,” though parents and educators say following through on those can be difficult, with limited staff and time.
Cara Bailey says her son’s problems stem from a disconnect between what he needed and what the school provided.
Colin needed order and clear expectations.
“‘First, we’re going to do this, and then we’ll go out to recess,’" she said.
"Simple things like that would’ve helped him understand and process what his day was going to look like. His classroom was chaotic, lots of free time, and for Colin, it doesn’t work.”
Bailey says Colin should have been assigned a one-on-one paraeducator to help him make sense of lessons and avoid frustrations and need for restraints.
Instead, he was given “additional adult support,” which could be less than one-on-one attention. After years of pushing district and state administrators on the issue, Bailey is convinced that Vancouver received funding for a one-on-one, without providing one.
Vancouver Public Schools administration “vehemently denies any allegation of inappropriate reporting or misuse” of funds, as Bailey alleges. State officials acknowledged that they didn’t investigate that allegation when they looked at Bailey’s complaint — and said it’s too late to go back and do that now.
The broader problem, parents such as Bailey and McPartland say, is that schools are trying to fit students with a broad range of skills and challenges into a limited range of program offerings and supports.
Landon, 10, sees that too.
“Their problem is, even when they do understand an autistic kid, they’re like ‘Oh, I understand, he likes this,’ then they think all autistic kids are that way,’” Landon said.
“Then when they find another autistic kid, and they figure that out, they think all autistic kids are either this way or that way — they’re still stuck in the same loop ... They need to accept that every kid is different.”
Meanwhile, special education populations are growing in Oregon and Washington, driven by a rapid rise in children diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
Oregon’s special education population went up 5 percent over the last six years, while the number of students identified with autism went up nearly 18 percent. Washington saw a 9.6 percent increase in students with disabilities over the same period, boosted by a 44 percent rise in students on the autism spectrum.
Inconsistent support was also an issue for Landon, according to his mom. Sarah McPartland said she was impressed with how his second-grade teacher worked to accommodate her son, through technology or adjusting lessons. But the family’s lawsuit suggests turnover in educational aides fueled a decline in Landon’s behavior.
And when Landon had the help of paraeducator Audra Morrison, she saw inconsistency from the classroom teachers.
Morrison said the second-grade teacher that McPartland loved may have gone too far in accommodating Landon.
“‘We’re just going to let him do what he wants so we can keep him happy’,” Morrison said, summarizing the teacher’s approach. “But then when we would try to push Landon in a healthy way, I would get kind of in trouble for it.”
Between second and third grades, Morrison worked with McPartland on changes to Landon’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, so that Landon could learn the way he wanted to, but still keep up with standards.
But Morrison said Landon’s third-grade teacher wasn’t on board with that.
“When it came to his new teacher, it was never focused around Landon, it was focused around fitting the needs of her classroom, and fitting the needs of her as a teacher,” Morrison concluded.
Landon says the rigorous approach was intolerable.
“It got to the point where I just snapped,” Landon said. “I tried to run away.”
School staff had to chase him down.
“They ran up to me, they shoved me to the ground, they grabbed my wrist, and they dragged me up the hill by my wrist,” Landon said. “And then, they basically just hugged me — like in a wrestling grip, except they didn’t let me go.”
Landon thought the school told his mother what occurred. When McPartland finally learned, six months later, it led to a humbling mother-son talk.
“It’s never great to be in a position as a parent when you have to go back to your child and say ‘I heard that this happened,’ and that you’re sorry, and the response from your child is ‘What does it matter, you weren’t there to help me?’” McPartland said.
Bailey and McPartland have both reached financial settlements with Vancouver Public Schools but are not allowed to discuss the details of them. Neither family is entirely happy. The Baileys feel like they still have unanswered questions about how the district handled special education funds. The McPartlands argue the money they were paid would be better used serving kids like Landon.
"I can’t share much," McPartland said. "But what I can say is, as a taxpayer, I’m irate."
District officials downplayed the problems cited by parents like these, asking OPB how many parents had been interviewed. Administrators pointed out they represent a small fraction of Vancouver's 3,000 students receiving special education.
Since suing the school, McPartland and Bailey have both heard from parents in Vancouver and elsewhere who have experienced similar problems with restraint and isolation.
When Melissa Shurman’s son started at a Vancouver kindergarten last year, he was a happy kid.
“Now he’s a little different,” Shurman said.
Brayden has an intellectual disability. His IEP, or individualized education plan, calls for a careful balance between a specialized setting and a traditional classroom.
“The majority of their education in a special education environment, and [he was supposed to] participate in the fun activities and lunch and recess, with children of normal development,” Shurman said. “That was not the case.”
Instead, Shurman said her son was in a traditional classroom all the time — and in over his head.
Shurman started to suspect teachers were frustrated, too. She’d hear them yelling at students when she visited.
She says while Brayden’s classmates wrote letters, her son would scribble.
“To him, that’s doing his work,” Shurman said.
She says Brayden came home with two versions of an assignment once: one with scribbles; one, done correctly. The papers also contained a message.
“It’s written on it saying ‘He refused to do, he refused to even try,’ and they did ‘hand-over-hand assistance,’” Shurman said.
Shurman suspects Brayden’s teachers grew impatient or frustrated.
“All that’s telling me is he was very upset, and was having a hard time and not doing it, and they grabbed his hand and forced him to do it,” Shurman concluded.
Brayden started showing his mom, by crossing his arms, how staff in his kindergarten room would hold him still.
“He started coming home with bruises on him — a bruise on his thigh — I could line up half of my left hand with it,” Shurman said. “And then he came home a couple weeks later with one on his hip, and that was the last time he attended school.”
Less than three months into school, Shurman had removed Brayden. She doesn’t know how many times Brayden was restrained.
Like the McPartlands and Baileys, she says notification came late, or not at all.