Bruises, scrapes and trauma: Idaho kids harmed when restrained, secluded in schools

The room was bare, with one small window in the door. Inside was a 5-year-old boy. He screamed and cried, his mother said, as an Emmett school staff member held the door shut.

An Idaho Falls teacher allegedly slammed a teenage boy against a wall, pushed him to the floor, restrained him on the ground. He wouldn’t let him up until he apologized, the police report said. The boy had refused to make a Valentine’s Day card.

A 12-year-old came home with scratches and a bruise in the shape of a handprint. Earlier that day, witnesses told police, multiple school staffers picked up and moved the boy with Down syndrome into a classroom. He resisted. He fell to the floor and hit his head.

These were just three of hundreds of instances of children across Idaho who have been restrained and secluded at school, some resulting in injuries and trauma. One boy slept on the floor next to his mother’s bed for more than a year after being secluded. Another child became aggressive and began wetting the bed. Others refused to go back to the school location where they were restrained.

Those practices have forced parents to choose between continuing to send their children to school or keeping them home where they know they will be safe. At least three families who spoke to the Idaho Statesman chose the latter.

“Education should not be a punishment,” Tasha Baker, a parent whose son has been secluded in school, told the Statesman. “Our kids should be educated in an environment that should encourage them to want to learn.”

He was restrained facedown. He said to me, ‘I thought I was going to die because I couldn't breathe.’

Tricia Ellinger, Cash’s mom

He’s 7. Why is he being put in a room and not being let out at 7 years old?

Tasha Baker, Xander’s mom

How can he ever feel safe in a school again? School has proven to him that he’s in danger there.

Tracie Boyer, Jake’s mom

They wouldn’t dare do that to a gen ed child, but they feel that they can do that to our children all the time.

Holly Giglio, Jake’s mom

If that had been me that had sent my child to school looking like what I picked him up as … I would have had a CPS case worker on my doorstep.

Nampa mother

Without more accountability over when and how to use restraint and seclusion, parents fear more kids will be traumatized and carry emotional and physical scars that could last a lifetime. In the worst of incidents, the use of restraint and seclusion in other states has led to deaths. Some worry Idaho won’t see change until a similar tragedy happens to a child here.

More than a decade ago, Idaho officials knew the practice of using restraints and seclusion in schools was a problem that needed to be addressed. It never was.

Today, no Idaho laws or rules govern schools’ use of these aversive techniques, while federal guidance treats them only as a last resort — when a child poses imminent harm.

“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” said Tricia Ellinger, another mom whose child was restrained, “suddenly everything looks like a nail.”

Boy restrained, secluded dozens of times

On an August afternoon, in the backyard outside his house in Emmett, 9-year-old Cash jumped up and down on the trampoline with his brother. “I’d rather be gaming,” his shirt said in big, bold letters. As he bounced, he tried different moves, throwing himself onto his stomach and then bouncing up for the perfect landing.

Cash was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was about 4 and with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a toddler. When Ellinger enrolled Cash in kindergarten in the Emmett School District at age 5, he struggled in school and would at times act out, throwing objects, hitting, screaming, running or swearing. The school resorted to restraining him and placing him in a secluded room.

It happened over and over again, Ellinger told the Statesman. She described what happened. Cash would be put in a small, closet-like room, with only a small window in the door. The room in school reports was known as a “safe area,” or “ready room.” It had cinder-block walls and laminate flooring. There was one fluorescent light on the ceiling. A staff member typically would hold the door shut. Cash couldn’t leave, Ellinger said.

Sometimes the incidents lasted a few minutes, according to a spreadsheet from the school Ellinger provided to the Statesman, which was intended to track Cash’s behaviors. Other times, they lasted more than an hour.

And for many of the incidents, Ellinger said she wasn’t told.

“All I knew was my kid kept coming home dysregulated, upset, violent,” she said.

While her two boys Cash, 9, and Matt, 11, jump on the family trampoline in the backyard of their home in Emmett, Tricia Ellinger explains how two of her children were either restrained or placed in a seclusion room in the Emmett School District. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com
While her two boys Cash, 9, and Matt, 11, jump on the family trampoline in the backyard of their home in Emmett, Tricia Ellinger explains how two of her children were either restrained or placed in a seclusion room in the Emmett School District. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com

The Emmett School District, where Ellinger’s children attended school, is one of the many districts and schools across Idaho that have policies in place on restraint and seclusion. But without more accountability on a state level, parents say those policies often aren’t enough. Some lack details on when the restraint or seclusion can be used and how incidents are reported to parents.

Several parents told the Statesman they didn’t find out their kids were restrained and secluded until months or years later. Some only learned about what happened when they noticed a change in their children’s behavior.

“How many other kids is this happening to with no documentation?” said Tracie Boyer, who learned her son, Jake, was secluded in the West Ada School District only when he told her.

Baker, a parent in Idaho Falls, first learned from her daughter that her son was being secluded. Her daughter was one day in the room next to the school’s quiet room, and told her mom that she heard her brother screaming from inside while a staff member held the door shut, Baker said.

Baker’s son, Xander, regularly came home from school distraught that year. He would cry and beg his mom not to send him back to the “dog school,” referring to the school’s mascot. He never dreaded going to school before.

She asked the district about her son getting secluded and was informed, for the first time, that the district was following his Individualized Education Program — a legal document that outlines the specific needs and services for a child who receives special education services. It had been mentioned in a small section of the 23-page document that the school can move him to “a room” in a crisis.

Her son is now verbal, but prior to that year, he was in a non-verbal classroom, where the main focus was to help kids learn to talk. He is still learning how to use words to express himself.

“He’s 7. Why is he being put in a room and not being let out at 7 years old?” Baker said. “He’s just learning how to talk so he’s trying to express himself. He was trying to tell me every day for months, and I didn’t understand him.”

Tasha Baker’s son, Xander, was secluded in school. She knew something was wrong, but wasn’t told he was being secluded. Provided
Tasha Baker’s son, Xander, was secluded in school. She knew something was wrong, but wasn’t told he was being secluded. Provided

The Idaho Falls School District said it could not discuss a specific student, but spokesperson Margaret Wimborne said some of the district’s schools have “low-stimulus safe rooms” that are “designed to help students calm down safely, while removing most of the factors that would reinforce the maladaptive behavior.” Students in the rooms are supervised by adults at all times, Wimborne said. The rooms are not used for punishment, discipline or behavior modification, she said.

“These rooms provide a safe space for students to be while demonstrating unsafe behavior, and to be able to de-escalate from the behavioral incident,” she said in an email to the Statesman. “These rooms provide a space to protect the dignity of students who experience behavioral/emotional crises.”

Baker told the school she didn’t want her son put in a secluded room anymore. After that, her son’s behavior changed, she said. She didn’t have trouble taking him to school, but she was called often to pick him up when he was upset. School notices shared with the Statesman showed he was suspended multiple times.

Baker said she felt like putting her son in the room was the easiest solution for staffers to get him to do what they wanted.

“It kind of was like breaking them like a dog,” she said. “If they are punished in that way enough times, they will eventually break.”

“He said to me, ‘I thought I was going to die’ ’’

In Emmett, Cash was later placed with a one-on-one aide. He spent a lot of time in a separate room with his aide, away from his classmates, doing worksheets in an effort to prevent him from being restrained and secluded, Ellinger said.

In September 2019, Ellinger filed a complaint with the State Department of Education and alleged that the Emmett School District violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The department investigated whether the district implemented an IEP to ensure Cash would make progress in the general education curriculum, and whether district officials considered the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports to address his behavior.

Cash Ellinger, 9, drops back onto his bed after working through a few math problems at his desk with his mother. Tricia Ellinger homeschools Cash after his school in Emmett resorted to the use of a seclusion room to control his behavior. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com
Cash Ellinger, 9, drops back onto his bed after working through a few math problems at his desk with his mother. Tricia Ellinger homeschools Cash after his school in Emmett resorted to the use of a seclusion room to control his behavior. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com

The department found the district failed to provide Cash with an appropriate individualized education plan and behavioral intervention plan to address his behavioral needs, and that the district “failed to timely address the student’s behavior.” The Department of Education concluded the district was out of compliance with two of the four allegations in the complaint in violation of federal law, according to the report Ellinger provided to the Statesman.

The state agency ordered the district to convene Cash’s IEP team to discuss behavioral goals and determine whether Cash needed an updated crisis management plan. The department also said the entire staff should participate in professional development training in an effort to prevent restraint and seclusion. Ellinger thought she’d won a victory. For a few months, she said, it got a little better.

But the situation eventually escalated. It all fell apart in March 2020.

When Cash was in first grade, shortly before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellinger took him to get a Paw Patrol stuffed animal. At school the next day, he asked for the stuffed animal he brought in his backpack. He was told he couldn’t have it until he completed a worksheet, Ellinger said. Around the same time, his sister was brought down to the school’s “ready room,” and Cash, who was working just outside that room, could see and hear her screaming. It was the end of the day, and Cash had a meltdown, Ellinger said.

She said Cash and an aide told her staff members restrained Cash on the floor of the room.

“He was restrained facedown,” Ellinger said. “He said to me, ‘I thought I was going to die because I couldn’t breathe.’ ”

A spokesperson from the Emmett School District said the case was a “confidential matter” they could not discuss, even if Ellinger agreed to sign a consent form. But the school’s report depicted the incident differently.

The school report said Cash threw himself to the floor and began throwing objects and kicking a box of Legos when he was told he couldn’t have his stuffed animal. A staff member offered him a stuffy from the school instead, according to the report, but Cash then ran at the door to the “ready room,” where his sister was secluded, and began punching staff members. His sister encouraged him. The report said staffers restrained him, and Cash threw himself to the floor and began kicking their faces. It said staff members were “touching his legs, but he was not being restrained by his legs.”

At “no time was he pinned to the ground,” the report said, but it did detail that at least five staff members were involved, and that they restrained Cash multiple times. It said the restraints and holds were used “in the manner that was taught to us by our trainers.”

Whatever happened that day, it changed Cash. Ellinger said her son regressed and began acting like a toddler. He stopped using words to express himself, wet the bed and was violent toward his family. It got so bad that Ellinger eventually sent him to a residential treatment facility.

“I thought, I’ve never seen this before. I’ve not seen this level of aggression every single day,” she said. “It was terrible.”

Some parents and advocates who spoke to the Statesman support banning seclusion altogether. Others said they simply want a statewide policy, one that would limit the practices to only emergency situations — a step Idaho education officials considered 12 years ago.

Idaho rule could have limited restraint, seclusion

A statewide policy could have been in place years ago.

In July 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to chief state school officers that encouraged states to review their policies and guidelines on the use of restraints and seclusion in schools “to ensure every student is safe and protected, and if appropriate, develop or revise its policies and guidelines.”

The U.S. Department of Education defines restraint as a restriction on a student’s ability to “freely move” their torso, arms, legs or head. Seclusion is when a student is “involuntarily” put in a room or area alone and unable to leave. A mechanical restraint, which many districts in Idaho have banned in their policies except when used by law enforcement, is when a “device or equipment” is used to restrict a student’s movement.

The State Department of Education created a task force to “address the use of restraint, seclusion and other aversive techniques” in Idaho’s public schools, according to the State Board of Education agenda from August 2010. The Safe and Supportive Schools Task Force included members from the State Department of Education, DisAbility Rights Idaho, the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Idaho School Boards Association, plus a special education director from the Boise School District.

In August 2010, the State Board of Education approved a proposed rule change. Restraint and seclusion should be used only in emergencies, the proposed rule said, “a situation in which a student’s behavior poses a believable and real threat of imminent, serious physical harm to the student or others.”

Under the proposed rule, every school district would develop a policy on the use of restraint and seclusion and review that policy annually. It also required training for staff members who use restraint and seclusion, and outlined specific reporting requirements.

Board meeting documents noted Congress had been discussing a bill on restraint and seclusion at the federal level, and that a bill had been approved by the U.S. House. But because the task force recognized the need to address the issue in Idaho, it saw no reason to wait until that passed to put a state policy in place.

The 2010 board documents said research showed restraint and seclusion “carry significant risk of injury or harm not only to the students who are subjected to them, but also to the school staff who must implement them.”

That rule never made it to state lawmakers. The State Department of Education removed mention of restraint and seclusion before it presented the final copy of pending rules to the Idaho Legislature. And the rule change was never brought back to the board, said Tracie Bent, chief planning and policy officer at the State Board.

“The department chose to pull all of the proposed language on the seclusion and restraint issue pending further review and research, and then they just never came back again,” she told the Statesman. “And the issue kind of died down.”

Public comments submitted in response to the proposed rule in 2010, obtained by the Statesman through a records request, included several people who said they supported the rule. At least one Meridian parent said her child was restrained and secluded “on a daily basis” and described times her child was “carried like a log” by three or four adults. But some, including a representative from the Idaho Education Association, also raised concerns that the proposed rule would “hamper a teacher’s ability to manage student behavior” and could be costly to train teachers and staff members as required in the rule.

Charlie Silva, the current special education director at the State Department of Education and former special education director with the Boise School District, said the directive at the time, “from a higher-up,” was that the state would not move forward.

Silva, who was on the committee that considered the rule change, told the Statesman there was a “big push” to do something on restraint and seclusion when it garnered attention at the federal level. But that quickly shifted.

“All a sudden, the tables turned,” Silva said. “At the federal level, for whatever reason, restraint and seclusion just kind of took a backseat.”

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who led the department when the rule was proposed, did not respond to requests for comment. Luci Willits, former chief of staff at the State Department of Education, also did not respond.

Idaho schools have mix of restraint, seclusion policies

Because there are no statewide requirements, the policies and training requirements on restraint and seclusion across schools in Idaho vary. The Statesman reviewed dozens of policies from districts across Idaho.

The West Ada School District’s procedure requires training for certain staff members, and outlines that restraint should be used only for protection and last no longer than three minutes. The Nampa School District requires that the superintendent review its policy every year, along with all reports of restraint and seclusion, and determine whether more training is needed for staff. The Boise School District has no publicly available policy or procedure specific to restraint and seclusion, only a policy that allows broad use of “reasonable physical force.”

Quinn Perry, deputy director with the Idaho School Boards Association, said the organization doesn’t have the ability to track which districts adopt certain policies, but the association provides a model restraint and seclusion policy used by several districts.

Many of the policies Idaho districts use include language that follows guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which in 2012 issued recommendations on the use of restraint and seclusion. That guidance said the practice should be used as a last resort, when “a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.” Restraint and seclusion should be “avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff,” the guidance said.

The Department of Education has said in its restraint and seclusion resource document there is no evidence restraint and seclusion reduce problem behaviors. The techniques have, however, caused children trauma, injury, or in rare cases, death.

In 2018, a California student with autism died after being restrained by his teacher, according to The Sacramento Bee. The Bee reported the boy “became unresponsive while being held in a ‘prone restraint’ for nearly an hour.” In 2003, a Michigan student was restrained on the first day of school “while he lay facedown after he appeared to have a seizure and then became combative,” according to the Detroit Free Press. He stopped breathing and died.

In 2016, the assistant secretary for civil rights also sent a letter that said restraint and seclusion “may result in discrimination against qualified students with disabilities,” and could therefore violate federal laws that protect students with disabilities.

“What the federal guidance said is, you don’t want to use these things unless it really is a matter of life or death,” said Guy Stephens, who started the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, an organization based in Maryland. “Unfortunately, in practice, that’s not what happened.”

Efforts to limit the practice at the federal level have stalled. One bill in Congress, called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, would prohibit seclusion, mechanical and chemical restraints and restraints that restrict breathing, as well as limit the use of any restraints in schools. But the bill hasn’t moved forward since its introduction in the Senate in May 2021. Federal legislation on restraint and seclusion has failed to make progress for more than a decade.

Data on restraints, seclusions ‘questionable’

Tracie Boyer’s son, Jake, was abused as an infant before she adopted him, Boyer said, and as a result, he has a high level of fear at all times and is hyper-vigilant. Jake can be disruptive at times. When he gets upset and scared, he can be impulsive and go into survival mode. Boyer said she has never sent Jake to his room, or put him in a timeout. He’s not a danger to himself or others, Boyer said.

He just has to feel safe.

“If he doesn’t feel safe, there is no way he can function in school,” she told the Statesman.

On Feb. 14, 2019, a West Ada staff member told Jake, who was 8 at the time, that he needed to complete a worksheet, and that he’d have to stay in for recess to finish it. Jake is not allowed to miss recess, as one of the parameters in his individualized education plan, because it helps him stay regulated and burn energy.

Jake got upset. He lay on the floor of the classroom and began to rip up his Valentine’s Day cards. Boyer said no one was in imminent danger. But school staff, she said, “didn’t know what to do with that.”

Boyer said Jake told her a staff member grabbed him under his arms and “dragged him into the padded room,” where a staff member held the door shut.

“Instead of supporting him, they’re punishing him,” Boyer said.

The school denied dragging Jake or secluding him, Boyer said. The West Ada School District declined to comment to the Statesman on the specific incident.

Jake recalled specific details from the time: that his arms hurt from being dragged; that the room was dark because someone had leaned against the door, blocking the small window; that he sat on the floor; that it smelled; that he got thirsty and asked for water, but a staff member told him he couldn’t have any, Jake told the Statesman.

Ramona Lee, the district’s special education director, said the district works to limit the use of both restraint and seclusion. At times, though, she said it becomes necessary “for student safety.”

“If a student’s harming themselves or others, we have to keep everyone safe,” Lee told the Statesman.

The West Ada School District has seclusion rooms, or “calming rooms,” which the district says in its procedure should be used only when “there is the threat of injury to the child or others, or as defined in the student’s individual behavior plan.” The district’s special education director said some of those areas are turned into a type of “sensory room” that students can go into voluntarily. West Ada School District/Provided
The West Ada School District has seclusion rooms, or “calming rooms,” which the district says in its procedure should be used only when “there is the threat of injury to the child or others, or as defined in the student’s individual behavior plan.” The district’s special education director said some of those areas are turned into a type of “sensory room” that students can go into voluntarily. West Ada School District/Provided

Boyer said school officials told her they cleared the room in response to Jake’s behavior, but insisted they did nothing more. She said she believes they denied the incident because, at the beginning of the year, she filled out a form that said the school did not have permission to put her son in the seclusion room.

Jake’s experience likely wasn’t reported as restraint or seclusion, Boyer said, because the school denied her son was secluded. It could be one of the many incidents that don’t get reported and contribute to misrepresented data on the practices, a problem the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged years ago.

Schools must report data on their use of restraint and seclusion to the Office for Civil Rights every other year. But experts said data on restraint and seclusion is often underreported and incomplete. So it’s difficult to know how widespread an issue it is, and how it differs across districts.

Some districts in Idaho report hundreds of incidents of restraint and seclusion a year, according to data from DisAbility Rights Idaho, which collected numbers from several districts across the state. For example, the Nampa School District reported 495 incidents of restraint among 86 students and 682 incidents of seclusion among 127 students during the 2019-2020 school year, according to data provided to the Statesman. About 75% of the incidents involved children receiving special education services.

The Boise School District reported 71 incidents of restraint, 78 incidents of seclusion and 207 incidents of both restraint and seclusion in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the data obtained by the Statesman. The previous year, the district reported seven incidents of seclusion, 78 incidents of restraint, and 165 incidents of both restraint and seclusion.

But many districts in Idaho have reported few incidents to the Office for Civil Rights in previous years, including Nampa and Boise. West Ada, the largest district in the state, reported only one incident of restraint and seclusion to the federal office over the course of several years. Lee, the special education director for the district, told the Statesman those numbers were inaccurate because of a problem with the district’s information system. The district has since updated the way it reports the data.

During the 2020-2021 school year, the district reported eight restraints, 10 seclusions and one mechanical restraint, which was used by law enforcement, spokesperson Greg Wilson told the Statesman.

Silva, the director of special education at the Idaho Department of Education, called the federal data on restraint and seclusion “questionable.” It’s collected at the school level, and different administrators define and interpret terms in different ways, she said.

“I personally don’t know how valid that data is,” she told the Statesman.

It’s not just an issue in Idaho. In April 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the “quality control processes” for the data “are largely ineffective or do not exist” and recommended the department “improve data quality.” The accountability office recommended six changes to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to improve data collection, including that it “further refine” the definitions of restraint and seclusion and require that any school district affirm any reports that showed zero incidents.

“Absent more effective rules to improve data quality, determining the frequency and prevalence of restraint and seclusion will remain difficult,” the accountability office said. “Further, Education will continue to lack information that could help it enforce various federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination.”

Who is being restrained and secluded?

Even with limited data, restraint and seclusion are disproportionately used on students with disabilities, students of color and male students, according to national data from the U.S. Department of Education. About 80% of students who were restrained and 77% of students who were secluded in the 2017-2018 school year, the latest data analysis available, were students with disabilities.

“I see that data and I think, ‘Wow, this is a civil rights issue,’ ” said Stephens, of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

Restraint and seclusion are also used more often on kids who have a history with trauma, Stephens said.

Special education experts told the Statesman students may struggle with a stimulating school environment, which can escalate situations. Many of the children who are restrained and secluded are in earlier elementary school grades — both nationally and in Idaho, according to limited data from Idaho school districts and national agencies.

Kraig Smikel, an attorney with DisAbility Rights Idaho, said younger students, who are new to schools, may still be adjusting to being away from home for the first time. In Idaho, many students are first exposed to full-day school in first grade. And in older grade levels, school resource officers may intervene and report the incidents differently, Smikel said.

“If you take your mind back to that idea that these things should only be used in really life-threatening situations,” Stephens said, “how often is it that a 5-year-old or 6-year-old are really posing that kind of harm? I would say it would be extremely rare.”

Parents pursue multiple avenues, see little change

Parents concerned about the use of restraint and seclusion in their schools can call a meeting on their child’s individualized education plan if they feel the plan isn’t being followed or needs to be amended. They can also file a complaint with the State Department of Education.

Ellinger, Cash’s mom, exhausted those avenues. In June 2021, Ellinger reached out to DisAbility Rights Idaho, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. In an April 13 letter this year, DisAbility Rights Idaho told Ellinger it had received multiple allegations of “abuse and neglect,” specifically regarding restraint and seclusion practices, at Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School in Emmett, where her children went. The organization started a “systemic investigation” into the allegations and made recommendations.

Ultimately, the organization said it found initial concerns about kids being restrained and secluded at the school, but that the school had made significant improvements since to reduce the incidents, according to a document Ellinger provided to the Statesman.

DisAbility Rights Idaho recommended the school continue Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) training — a tiered framework designed to support students and prevent unwanted behaviors — and amend its policy on restraint and seclusion to outright ban certain practices, such as mechanical restraints or restraints that restrict a student’s breathing.

The organization also said the “ready room” should continue to be used as a last resort, and that another small room used as a seclusion room should no longer be used because it lacked any supports that would help a student de-escalate. That room, DisAbility Rights Idaho said, “was solely designed to isolate students and lacked any sort of safety precautions.”

The school district did not respond to requests for comment on the steps it took to limit restraint and seclusion or on the DisAbility Rights Idaho investigation.

Ellinger said the school didn’t make enough changes. During the 2021-2022 school year, her kids continued to be restrained and secluded, she said, and she was called multiple times to pick up Cash from school. In February, Ellinger pulled her son out of school.

Her path looked similar to that of other families who spoke to the Statesman. She was one of several parents who decided to at least temporarily remove their kids from school out of fear they won’t be kept safe.

Boyer said being put in the seclusion room had a traumatizing impact on her son, Jake. He learned from that experience he couldn’t trust the people who were supposed to protect him.

After he was secluded, Jake slept on the floor next to his mom’s bed for about a year and a half. Jake refused to do everything, Boyer said. He slept all day long in school. He was scared to go to class, he said.

“How can he ever feel safe in a school again?” Boyer said. “School has proven to him that he’s in danger there.”

“I miss being able to make new friends,” said Jake Boyer, 12, while sitting in a park near his home. Tracie Boyer, Jake’s mom, pulled Jake out of public school after the alleged use of a seclusion room. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com
“I miss being able to make new friends,” said Jake Boyer, 12, while sitting in a park near his home. Tracie Boyer, Jake’s mom, pulled Jake out of public school after the alleged use of a seclusion room. Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com

The first night he slept in his own bed was the day Boyer told him he would never have to go back to that school. She opted to start online learning.

“How is that not trauma?” Boyer said. “That’s extreme trauma.”

Jake was home-schooled last year. But it was a sacrifice. He was no longer able to see his classmates every day, and, even though he visited friends, he lacked a lot of the social aspects of school.

Still, Jake said he liked being home, where he knows he’s safe.

“It’s a lot better because it’s only Mom and Dad,” he told the Statesman. “I’m not good at being in big classes, but I miss being with kids.”

This year, Jake is in middle school and taking two classes — band and PE. He still takes his other classes at home. It’s been going well so far, Boyer said. It’s a new school, and Jake is able to interact with his peers. But one day, she hopes he can go back to school full time, knowing he’ll be safe.

Idaho Falls teacher charged with battery

Incidents of restraint in Idaho have also resulted in legal action.

The teacher who restrained Stephanie Zamora’s son, an Idaho Falls student, was charged with misdemeanor battery, assault and disturbing the peace.

Zamora’s son Alonzo, now 15, is on the autism spectrum and is high functioning, Zamora said. Eighth grade was a good year for him. He felt supported and had a one-on-one aide.

Then on Feb. 11, 2021, his teacher, Jared Emfield, told him to make a Valentine’s Day card. He refused.

He yelled and cursed at his teacher, and his aide prompted him to leave the classroom. Part of his behavior plan includes exiting the classroom before a conflict escalates, school staff said in a police report.

Alonzo left, but Emfield followed. The teacher called Alonzo a “punk” and got “in his face,” Alonzo’s aide said in the police report. Alonzo put up his forearm to try to create some space between himself and the teacher, Alonzo and his aid said in the report. Emfield then pushed the student backward, slammed him against a wall, pushed him to the ground and restrained him, the report said. Alonzo then began to apologize, and the teacher allowed him to stand up. Alonzo’s aide said that when he tried to intervene, Emfield threatened to break his arm, according to the report.

The Idaho Falls School District said it couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case involving Emfield because it was still being litigated. The judge ruled a mistrial in April.

“However, I can assure you the safety and security of our students is always our priority,” spokesperson Wimborne said in an email. Physical restraint, she said, is only used if a child is in “imminent danger of hurting him/herself or others.”

Allen Browning, Emfield’s attorney, said Emfield was defending himself after Alonzo punched him. He called Emfield a “wonderful man” who’s trained in martial arts and used a safe technique to control the student.

“The school district does not want its teachers to be able to defend themselves when they are physically attacked,” Browning told the Statesman. “Jared defended himself.”

Zamora said it’s been difficult to make people understand her son is a good kid who just needs certain resources to thrive. He loves to fish and listen to music. He has a summer job mowing lawns, and likes to collect shoes and hats. His pottery class in school was his favorite.

“It’s just always an uphill battle … trying to explain to the world that he is not a punk. He’s a kid that struggles,” she said, adding he just needs the right support in place. “It just felt like a never-ending battle.”

Shortly before the incident, the special education teacher at her son’s school had reached out to Zamora to tell her how much success he was having. The teacher said the school was going to try to phase out his one-on-one aide so he could be more independent.

But after he was restrained, Alonzo became more dependent on his aide. He also refused to go into the classroom setting where he was restrained for about two months. He missed reading instruction because it was located in the space where the incident happened.

“It still has a lasting effect,” Zamora said.

About a month after Alonzo’s alleged battery, Emfield was no longer with the school district. He worked there for less than a year. He faces a new trial in April.

‘When somebody hurts your kid, it changes you’

Seven families interviewed by the Statesman whose children had been restrained or secluded described intense trauma and fear the kids experienced after the incidents. Some also said their children incurred physical bruises after being restrained.

Marie picked up her then-seventh-grade son from school in Nampa in April to find he had severe bruises and contusions across one of his arms. Along the shoulder was a large scrape and there was a mark on his upper middle back. She found other scratches and bruises across his body. The Statesman is identifying Marie only by her middle name because she feared repercussions for her son.

“It very much looked not like a restraint, but like someone had thrown him onto the ground and then scraped him across the wall,” she said. “And if you go off my son’s testimony, that’s exactly what they did.”

It was the second time that year her son had come home with bruises on his body, she said.

Marie’s son has autism, ADHD and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, a condition that includes “extreme irritability, anger, and frequent, intense temper outbursts,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Marie said she’s had to call the police department for help and decide whether to put him on a mental health hold, but he’s never needed to be restrained. In all the times he’s been in the hospital, he has never come home with bruises, she said.

“It’s abuse,” she said. “If that had been me that had sent my child to school looking like what I picked him up as … I would have had law enforcement and a CPS case worker on my doorstep.”

Marie wasn’t the only parent whose child came home from school with bruises on their bodies. About a decade ago, Holly Giglio was helping her son Jake, who was 12 at the time, get ready for a bath when she noticed scratches and a bruise that looked like a handprint on one of his arms.

She had heard something happened to her son that day during class, but she hadn’t received any report from the Bonneville School District. She learned staff members picked up Jake — who has Down syndrome and autism, and is nonverbal — and moved him into the classroom after he refused to leave a quiet space he often started the day in. He spit on one staff member, and that person then held his hand on Jake’s mouth for three to five seconds, according to statements from witnesses in a police report. An aide tried to hold Jake and get him to sit at his desk. At one point, Jake fell to the floor and hit his head, the report said.

Giglio has restrained her son in the past, but she said it had never left a mark on her son. Over the next few years, she worked to get a district policy in place on restraint and seclusion.

“They wouldn’t dare do that to a gen ed child, but they feel that they can do that to our children all the time,” Giglio told the Statesman. “When somebody hurts your kid, it changes you for life.”

Holly Giglio’s son, Jake, came home from school with bruises and scratches after being restrained at school when he was 12.
Holly Giglio’s son, Jake, came home from school with bruises and scratches after being restrained at school when he was 12.

Parents say more training needed

Parents said staff members need more training — that sometimes, they can have an emotional response when dealing with certain situations. And they want more accountability to prevent trauma or injuries for kids, they said.

“There is no real regulatory body to prevent abuse in the schools,” Marie said. “There’s no oversight whatsoever right now.”

Lee Kern, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who researches interventions for students with behavioral disorders, said school staff members can use several other strategies to prevent restraint and seclusion. Many of those solutions must be long-term programs or interventions, she said.

There may be limited situations when restraint is necessary, but that’s very rare, Kern said. Now, it’s used “in the absence of better strategies,” Kern said.

Grafton Integrated Health Network — which supports people with mental health challenges — developed a program called Ukeru Systems. The program’s website describes it as the “first crisis-training program to offer a physical alternative to restraints and seclusion.” Ukeru said more than 375 organizations across the U.S. use its systems, including public and private schools.

The program is “based on receiving information communicated through someone’s actions.” It offers training on trauma-informed care, verbal and nonverbal communication and “safe blocking,” which involves using pads if a child becomes aggressive, according to the website. The program emphasizes creating a culture of “comfort versus control.”

According to its website, school districts across the country that have used the system reduced their use of restraints and seclusions, as well as staff injuries, significantly. Ukeru Systems is just one of many similar solutions, Stephens said.

Some states have also implemented laws that provide certain protections for children from restraint and seclusion, according to an analysis published through the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

While concerns often arise that banning restraint and seclusion could put students or staff at risk, experts told the Statesman the practices often pose greater risk to teachers and children.

Silva said it’s a district decision on whether to train staff on certain de-escalation programs, and who will be trained, but she said most large districts train their staff in some capacity. One challenge, she added, is the high turnover in special education.

The goal at the State Department of Education is to make sure teachers have the tools they need to avoid using restraint and seclusion, she said. No one wants to restrain or seclude kids, she added.

“You can have all the legislation in the world, but unless you have training established to prevent things from happening, the legislation can just be viewed as punitive,” Silva said.

The West Ada School District uses seclusion rooms or “calming rooms” when, according to its policy, “there is the threat of injury to the child or others, or as defined in the student’s individual behavior plan.” West Ada School District/Provided
The West Ada School District uses seclusion rooms or “calming rooms” when, according to its policy, “there is the threat of injury to the child or others, or as defined in the student’s individual behavior plan.” West Ada School District/Provided

Any legislation on restraint and seclusion should include a few key pieces, Kern said — clear definitions, allowing the techniques only when students or others are at risk of imminent harm, and reporting procedures that provide a way to ensure the child is OK and to notify parents.

“Anytime that kid is restrained, it suggests that whatever supports are in place are not sufficient,” she said.

Until something changes in Idaho, some parents said they will continue to keep their children at home. They said they don’t trust school districts to protect their kids, and don’t believe their children are getting a free, appropriate public education children with disabilities are guaranteed under federal law.

Others, though, said home-schooling isn’t an option for them.

Ellinger sent her son to a different school in the district this year. He wanted to go back, to be with other kids. Ellinger said she wrote a letter to the school that said under no circumstance should Cash be restrained or secluded. But she will always worry.

Cash is changed permanently after being restrained and secluded over and over again, Ellinger said. She used to describe her 5-year-old son as sweet, happy and pleasant. She doesn’t think she’ll ever see that kid again.

“That little boy,” she said, “is gone forever.”