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Wisconsin School Violated Seclusion and Restraint Policies, Investigation Finds

<Ƶ class="subtitle">District works to respond, while student’s education still in flux.
Weston Elementary School. (Candice Corey)

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A recent investigation found a Wisconsin school failed to comply with several seclusion and restraint policies, including ensuring sufficient training, properly documenting seclusion and restraint incidents, debriefing after incidents, notifying the student’s parent and removing a lock on the door of the seclusion room.

The investigation, conducted by Daniel Unertl, an attorney with Attoles Law, looked into the treatment in the fall of 2023 of a first-grade student at Weston Elementary School — a small school of about 140 in rural Cazenovia, Wisconsin. It was initiated by the school board after Candice Corey, the student’s mother, issued a complaint that her son was the victim of physical harm perpetrated by staff members and the district failed to properly document and communicate the instances of seclusion and restraint.

Corey said her son, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, has been traumatized by the experiences.

“His whole demeanor is different,” Corey told the Wisconsin Examiner. “He used to want to go across town to his friend’s house. He doesn’t do that anymore. He used to take the dogs to the park or take the dogs for a walk. He doesn’t do that anymore.” Of her son’s change in personality, she said, “They dimmed a light that they didn’t need to.”

Seclusion — the forced confinement of a student in a room or area — and physical restraint — restraining a student’s body movements — are practices used in schools to respond to student behavior. State laws in Wisconsin require that the practices are only used when students present a “clear, present, and imminent risk to the physical safety” of themselves or others and when it is the least restrictive intervention possible. The law lays out other requirements if the practices are being used.

The practices are disproportionately used with elementary school students who have disabilities and have been highly criticized in the last few decades due to the physical and mental effects on children. Wisconsin adopted its laws regulating the practices  in 2010 and 2019 to help limit their use and mitigate the potential harm. Advocates against the use of the practices say problems remain when it comes to ensuring schools comply with the law.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, an attorney representing Corey and a long-time disability rights advocate, said the investigation’s findings and recommendations are notable. He said that often when schools conduct such investigations, they hire the same law firms that usually represent their schools, which is a conflict of interest. This happened in Corey’s case as well, but the investigator found several of the concerns and recommended discipline for the superintendent and the special education director.

“I have yet to see that for a so-called independent investigation conducted by a school district’s attorney in all my time,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “And I think it’s a wake up call, hopefully, to other school districts to get serious when they do investigations of abuse by staff and school.”

Spitzer-Resnick said he also appreciates that the school didn’t go into “defense and denial mode” as many school districts do when there are accusations about seclusion and restraint. He added that the report helped ensure this.

Insufficient training

Corey’s son, who is autistic and deals with ADHD, had a relatively positive start to the 2023-24 school year, according to witnesses interviewed in the investigation. He had been attending Weston Elementary School since the 2020-2021 school year as a 4-year-old kindergarten student and then completed two years of kindergarten before entering the first grade.

In mid-October of 2023, however, his behavioral problems started to increase and as a result, he started receiving instruction mostly in a dedicated special education room. After this, staff began using seclusion and restraint more often to respond to his behavior.

Wisconsin state law lays out several requirements for when seclusion and restraint are used, including requirements that secluded students must be supervised; must have access to a bathroom, drinking water, necessary medication and scheduled meals; must be in a room that can’t be locked and is free of objects or fixtures that could injure them and may only be secluded for as long as necessary to resolve the risk. In the case of restraint, some of the policies in the statute include that the degree of force and duration should not exceed what is “reasonable and necessary” to resolve the risk and it should not constitute corporal punishment. It also includes requirements for steps the school must take after a seclusion or restraint occurs. Several of those requirements were not complied with in this case, according to the report.

Corey’s complaint alleged that her son was the victim of physical harm. Her son did come home with a scratch from three nails on his forearm caused by a paraprofessional, though the investigation found that it was an accident. He also had bruises consistent with being grabbed inappropriately.

The investigation did not reveal evidence of corporal punishment. However, it did find several other deficiencies and failures.

Training was one of the first issue areas.

State law requires at least one staff member in each school where restraint might be used to be trained, and that only trained staff members are supposed to conduct any seclusions unless there is an emergency and a trained individual isn’t available. The Department of Public Instruction within a school as it’s helpful in a situation where restraint is used to “have more than one trained person available to ensure safety for students and staff alike.”

Before December 2023, Molly Kasten, the director of curriculum, instruction and special education for the district, was the only staff member with up-to-date training. She was also in charge of ensuring staff were trained. Multiple staff members who regularly interacted with the student, including two paraprofessionals, did not have up-to-date training, including when they engaged in the use of seclusion and restraint.

The investigation noted that, given prior experiences with the student, it wasn’t unforeseeable that there was the potential for seclusion and restraints, and “Kasten, as the administrator in charge of seclusion and restraint training, should have anticipated this need and ensured an adequate number of staff received proper training.”

Staff had, as a result, also received little to no training in how to fill out the reports — another area where failings were apparent.

Incomplete documentation, lack of notification

The investigator reviewed a total of 14 seclusion and restraint reports the district had on file. Three of the incidents happened on Nov. 8, 2023. Three other incidents occurred on Nov. 13, 2023. One happened on each of the following dates: Nov. 16, Nov. 17, Nov. 20, Nov. 21. Dec. 12 and three others on Dec. 14.

Only one of the 14 was properly documented.

“In sum, nearly all the reports examined by this reviewer were inadequate,” the investigation states. “The reports in some cases are so deficient that it is virtually impossible for a third party reviewer to ascertain whether the report was filled out for a restraint or a seclusion. Despite numerous witnesses indicating that restraint did in fact occur, not a single report explicitly indicates the use of restraint.”

When the incidents were occurring, the seclusion room was also out of compliance as a lock remained on the door. It wasn’t removed until after the investigation.

In addition, at least one incident was not documented at all during the student’s second year of kindergarten in 2022-23. Instances of the principal dragging him down the hallway, technically a restraint, were also not documented.

The school may have failed to report the instance in kindergarten to the Department of Public Instruction as zero instances of seclusion and restraint were reported in .

On at least two occasions, Superintendent Gary Syftestad dragged the student down the hallway at the school. He claimed the student saw it as “fun” as did other staff members who witnessed the dragging. In the second instance of this happening, Syftestad dragged him by the ankle.

The investigation admonished Syftestad for his actions.

“Regardless of a student’s perception of this type of incident, dragging a student down the hall, be it by a hand or by the foot, is incredibly inappropriate and unprofessional conduct from any staff member, much less from the superintendent,” the investigation stated. “As the District’s educational leader, Syftestad is held to the highest possible standard. … He is supposed to be the trusted leader who students can come to with any questions or concerns, and witnessing the superintendent drag one of your classmates down the hall of the school would negatively impact students’ ability to view Syftestad as a trusted adult.” Further, it stated that the dragging would “model negative behaviors that staff members should not be emulating and may cause staff to lose any trust or respect” that the staff have in Syftestad.

The investigation also said that those who witnessed the dragging, including the principal, “should have objected to any instance of Syftestad dragging a child, no matter the context, and doing so demonstrates a significant lapse in judgement.”

The investigation called the failures “concerning” given the clear guidance in state statute and school board policy and the serious nature of seclusion and restraint.

In addition to official documentation and reporting, within three days of an incident, parents are supposed to receive written reports from the school. Corey received inadequate notification, according to the investigation.

“Corey was only provided with the reports when she requested them. The reports arrived late and incomplete,” the report stated.

Corey said she wasn’t made aware of the complete extent of her son’s situation until December when she started asking questions. Those questions were prompted after her son came home with scratches on his forearm and she heard from some that he was being dragged down the hallway by the superintendent.

“[My son] had been telling me these things, but I didn’t — I didn’t believe it,” Corey said. “I would get a random call every now and then. Just ‘Oh, he had a rough day.’ But I was never informed they were putting him in a seclusion room or physically restraining him until December.”

In December, she pulled him out of the school.

School responds, student’s education in flux

Spitzer-Resnick said he suspects the Weston school district is not the only school district in the state with training, documentation and reporting issues. He noted that he had concerns when the laws were being created about staff being trained to prevent incidents and appropriately document them and whether there would be funding to support that. He said this case also brings up the question of whether schools are accurately reporting — an ongoing concern of his.

School districts in Wisconsin have been required to report data to the Department of Public Instruction each year since the 2020-21 school year and many show up as having zero instances of seclusion and restraint.

“When we see school districts with low numbers of seclusion and restraint, can we safely assume that that means they’re really not doing it very much, if at all? And the sad answer is no,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “We can’t, because there isn’t good auditing at DPI’s level.”

Spitzer-Resnick said he recognizes that DPI doesn’t have the resources to audit every school district in Wisconsin, but said even auditing 10 or 20 would send a message to other districts about ensuring they are reporting incidents and complying with state policy. There is nothing in statute guiding DPI on what to do with the data it receives from schools, and currently, DPI focuses on reaching out to districts that report high numbers of seclusions and restraints.

The investigation recommended several actions for the district, including training for several staff members and disciplinary action for Syftestad and Kasten. In a letter attached to the investigation report, the school board president Carrie Heiking detailed the actions that the school will be taking.

Those actions include reviewing and making necessary corrections to the school’s 2022-23 seclusion and restraint report, training and certifying essential staff in seclusion and restraint practices, bringing in an outside consultant to ensure the seclusion room is in compliance, developing a professional development training plan for all staff, training employees who may be involved in a seclusion and restraint situation in documentation and notification requirements, maintaining a training log, developing a best practice protocol for debriefing incidents and reviewing mandatory staff training requirements.

Heiking wrote that the board also reviewed the recommendations for staff discipline and would be taking “significant” actions, though the specific actions weren’t disclosed for confidentiality reasons.

“On behalf of the Board of Education, we hope that this message gives you the sense of closure we believe you deserve,” Heiking wrote in the letter attached to the report.

The Examiner contacted Heiking to ask about the investigation and the district’s ongoing response. In an email, Heiking said the district “does not comment on matters where the privacy of our students or staff members are concerned and protected by law.”

Heiking also referred the Examiner to administrative reports related to seclusion and restraint, which are presented to the board during open meetings.

A June report provided to the school board by Kasten about training noted that the goal is to have all staff trained in nonviolent crisis intervention, and that at one point the district had trained 85% of staff.

“At this point, special education staff, administration and some paraprofessionals are correctly certified and trained,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, Syftestad, who has worked in education for 30 years, is retiring and the school board is in the process of hiring a new superintendent. He said in a statement to the board that “the time has come for me to focus on my health and my family.”

Heiking said the board wishes him well in his retirement and is “very appreciative of his dedication and leadership over the last several years.”

Spitzer-Resnick emphasized that the seclusion and restraint has heavily affected  the student’s education, and his family is  still working to make up for that harm. The student has started attending a school outside of Madison — about an hour and a half drive away from his home.

“There [was] no education happening” for much of the school year for the student in his former school, Spitzer-Resnick said.

“And we’re still in a place after this, granted, this very small school district basically said, ‘OK, you know, I guess we have to send him somewhere else because… We don’t know what to do,’” he continued, paraphrasing the school’s reaction.

Corey, for now, remains reluctant to send her son back to the district even with the proposed actions from the district.

“The changes would be great if they’re actually going to follow through and do well, but I will not let him return up there until there’s a staff change,” Corey said. “This went on for almost three months of you restraining a special needs child down the hallway to throw him in a room by himself. Nobody thought they should probably report that to me.”

She added that she appreciates her tight-knit rural community and hopes her son can go back to school there one day.

“But at the same time, is this wound ever going to heal?” Corey said. “Even when we drive by there, he doesn’t — he doesn’t look at the school. He doesn’t talk about the school. If we see somebody from the school out in public, he runs.”

is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on and .

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