SCARBOROUGH — Michael Corbeau vividly remembers being restrained when he was a student in Scarborough.
“The hardest part is when you’re going down,” Corbeau said. “They count, so you know it’s coming. You struggle and fight. That’s how people break things, that’s when kids and teachers get hurt.”
As a child, Corbeau, now 22, was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. He was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He graduated from Scarborough High School two years ago, but attended several residential and day treatment programs for most of his school years.
But he attended public school in Scarborough on and off, and he’s the first to admit he was a difficult kid with serious behavioral issues.
“I was a big kid,” Corbeau said. “The staff were intimidated by me.”
As a result, he said, staff were rough with him, often leaving him bruised and rug-burned after multiple restraints. Corbeau said this only encouraged him to fight harder.
And he was deeply upset, he said, when he read recently about Brandon Baizley, a young boy subjected to restraints in Scarborough.
“Realizing kids are still growing up that way, it made me mad,” he said. “I thought I was the only one.”
But Corbeau is not the only child subjected to restraints in the public schools.
In addition to Corbeau and Baizley, two other families from Scarborough have come forward to report restraints and have provided The Forecaster with all the restraint forms they received while their children were attending public schools.
From Dec. 4, 2007, through May 7, 2010, according to those forms, 18 Scarborough school employees performed 95 restraints on three boys between the ages 5 and 8.
Many of the forms contain documentation of several restraints performed the same day, often culminating in the parents being called to pick up their sons. One restraint lasted two hours 35 minutes, with staff switching out when they got tired.
In some cases, the restraints were not documented using the formal restraint forms required by district policy, and only mentioned in passing on a child’s daily progress report.
Suspended from kindergarten
Shaune Cook’s son, Evan, who was diagnosed with PTSD, developmental delays, stress disorder and Anxiety and Depression Disorder before he began school, was suspended from kindergarten three times for behavioral issues. He was suspended four times in first grade.
“He was in kindergarten,” Cook said. “He didn’t understand (suspension) was punishment.”
Instead, she said, the suspensions and constant calls for her and her husband to retrieve Evan reinforced the idea that if he acted out, he would be rewarded.
“What this says to the child is, ‘they send me home because they don’t want me.’ I don’t think (the staff) thinks about that,” said Diane Smith of the Disability Rights Center, which represented 37 families last year who made formal complaints about students being repeatedly sent home early or suspended. Nine of those 37 were elementary school children.
Smith said these suspensions, combined with repeated restraints, increase the chances that a student becomes disenfranchised with the system and turns away, dropping out or ending up in the juvenile detention system.
Suspensions and shortened days can be difficult on families, as child care becomes an issue. Smith said repeatedly sending children home emotionally drains the parents and the child.
“Who wants to send their kid where they’re not wanted?” she said.
Scarborough School Board Chairman Brian Dell’Olio said if a young child is suspended, the parents should use that as an opportunity to consult with medical personnel to determine if there are larger issues at play.
“Public school is not there to be a convenience, we’re there to educate,” said Dell’Olio. “I would hope (suspension) would not be a reward, that the student wouldn’t just have the week off.”
Cook recalled one instance when the principal at Pleasant Hill School called her and told that if she didn’t get to the school fast enough, they were going to call police and have her son taken to a hospital psychiatric ward.
“He was sitting right there when she said it,” Cook said. “He panicked and was sobbing when I got there. He said ‘they’re going to take me away from you.'”
Despite his parents making repeated requests that staff not use restraint to bring Evan under control, the situation at Pleasant Hill School, where Evan was in a special classroom, continued to worsen.
Finally, during a meeting in January 2010, staff told Cook that the district would pay to send Evan to School Administrative District 6 in Buxton. He began school there this spring.
“In Buxton, he said to the teachers, ‘go ahead and hold me,’ then wrapped his hands at his sides expecting to be held. They told him they don’t do that there,” Cook said.
From February until school ended in June, Evan was not restrained once in Buxton and Cook received only one call from the school when Evan had a particularly bad day.
Cook was so happy with Evan’s success that the family sold their home in Scarborough and moved to Buxton.
“A child should not be able to go from one public school to another and have it be this much better,” Cook said.
Both Scarborough and Buxton are part of Sebago Alliance, which is a group of school districts looking to consolidate services. Special education services are one of the many things the alliance is looking into as a possibility for consolidation, Dell’Olio said.
When asked if he thought it was unfair to shift the cost burden of these students to other communities, Dell’Olio said it was the Cook family’s decision to move to Buxton and that if they had not, Scarborough would have continued to pay for Evan to attend there as long as necessary.
“That was their choice,” he said. “They didn’t have to move.”
Jude Herb’s son, Zeke, was in the same special classroom with Evan and Brandon.
In addition to Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, Zeke also has severe asthma and doctors were worried for a time that he may have cystic fibrosis.
Despite that, Zeke was repeatedly held in two-person prone holds for up to a half-hour while at Pleasant Hill School, according to documents provided by his family.
A May 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that prone holds have been show to put students, particularly those with breathing issues, at risk of serious injury or death. A July 2009 letter from the Maine Department of Education requested schools prohibit the use of airway-restrictive restraints.
Dell’Olio, who said he had not read The Forecaster’s previous two stories on restraints, said he was not sure whether the Scarborough School Board is reviewing the district’s restraint policy, and that if a letter from the Maine DOE was sent to the superintendent, it was also sent to the school’s lawyer at Drummond Woodsum.
“I think there are times when students can be a danger to themselves and others. These things have to be looked at in a case by case basis,” he said.
Herb said she felt like she was on call as soon as she dropped Zeke off for school.
“I’ve been on a five-minute tether for years,” she said.
When the calls started coming every day and the restraint forms became a regular appearance in Zeke’s backpack, Herb demanded something be done. As a result, Zeke now attends the Collaborative School in New Gloucester.
“I’m not sure what my kid learned, other than fear, at the Pleasant Hill School,” Herb said.
Now, she said, he’s doing much better. But she can’t help but wonder if Zeke, Evan, Brandon and their other classmates, some of whom have also been sent out of district, were systemically flushed out so their special education program could be dissolved.
The program was eliminated from the budget this year and Scarborough is now spending $159,400 on outside placement for special education students. Private school tuition for public school children is set by the state at $7,440 for elementary school students and $9,154 for secondary school students.
“We are legally obligated to provide (outside placement),” Dell’Olio said.
He explained that an Individual Education Plan is how the school determines what is best for the student, including outside placement.
Alison Marchese, Scarborough’s special ed director, and Chris Rohde, Scarborough’s assistant special ed director, referred questions to Superintendent David Doyle. Doyle refused to comment and declined to explain why he would not comment.
Assistant Superintendent Jo Ann Sizemore and School Board member Jane Wiseman did not respond to requests for comments. School Board member and Finance Committee Chairman Robert Mitchell is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
For Michael Corbeau, being restrained by Scarborough staff as a child contributed to a lifetime of issues.
As he grew up, his behavior continued to escalate until he accidentally broke a Spurwink staff member’s arm when he pushed him out of the way to escape a seclusion room. He was put in a juvenile detention facility for two months pending a trial, then sent to a residential facility in New Hampshire, paid for by the Scarborough School District.
He said the restraints still affect him today, and he is on anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs to help deal with PTSD.
Corbeau said his parents agreed to everything the school district recommended, which included “holding” him as part of his individual educational plan, because they trusted the staff.
“Restraints need to be explained better,” Corbeau said. “They should use the word restraint. It’s not a ‘hold,’ it’s a restraint.”
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lauren Heikkinen, a teacher at Aucocisco School in Cape Elizabeth, works on vowel sounds with a student during a summer catch-up class. Aucocisco is a private school attended by many students who have been unsuccessful in public schools. The school accepts students with a wide range of disabilities and has a policy prohibiting physical restraints.
CAPE ELIZABETH — Two students and two teachers are outside watering and weeding the lush garden in the front yard at Aucocisco School on Spurwink Road. One student turns on the sprinkler system and the teacher, bent over amongst the zucchini, gets a shower.
“Oops! Watch out!” the student yells.
The teacher shrugs.
“It’s OK. I don’t mind,” he says.
This casual atmosphere, one of calm conversation and under-stated reactions, is maintained throughout the day at Aucocisco, a private school for children who have not had success in public school settings.
Often, these students are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, dyslexia or any combination of these and many more diagnosis that affect mood, sensory sensitivity and reaction to stimuli.
Here, a class with five students is considered very large.
There’s an exercise room where students can burn off energy on trampolines and a Stairmaster, the fluorescent light bulbs are covered with colored theater gels to tone down the harsh light, and there are special desks with swinging metal fidget bars.
Everything about the place is different than most public schools, including the way the administrators talk.
“There are no real generalizations you can make about these kids,” Aucoscico owner Barbara Melnick said. “We see acting out as a teaching opportunity, not a punishing opportunity.”
Melnick oversees the school, which, she is the first to admit, can choose to accept a student only if the staff and facilities are available to work with the student on individual educational and emotional needs. They won’t accept students they don’t believe will be successful.
“It’s about picking your battles. We think about these kids as if they were missing their outer layer of skin. They’re incredibly sensitive,” she said.
Melnick worked for years as a public school special education teacher, but said her views often left her in conflict with administrators.
“I’m a real child advocate,” she said. “Sometimes that doesn’t go over well in public schools.”
So Melnick and her husband, Harvey, opened Aucocisco, to catch students before they end up in serious trouble.
“We know what happens to the kids who don’t make it,” she said. “They end up in mental health facilities or in prison.”
Between 40 and 60 percent of Aucocisco’s students are tuition students from public schools. Each year, the state sets a maximum amount schools like Aucocisco can charge public schools for tuition. For the 2009-2010 school year, it was $7,440 per elementary school student.
That tuition pays for each student to have an adviser who monitors the child. Aucocisco puts emphasis on the connection between the teacher and the student, and encourages teachers to speak up if they don’t feel like they have a strong connection. Each teacher works with only a few students, and each child’s education plan is individually tailored.
Aucocisco has a no-restraints policy. While she has a few staff members trained in restraints for emergency situations, Melnick said most of her staff are not trained how to use restraints at all.
“Enough of our kids come here traumatized from holds. Just seeing another child restrained sets them off. We just can’t do that here,” she said.
Harvey Melnick, who worked for Sweetser for years before opening Aucocisco, trains public and private school staff in therapeutic crisis intervention.
“It’s an upward slope that ends in restraint,” Harvey said. “There are 1,001 ways to redirect kids in the lower part of the slope.”
He said he does not know many school systems that don’t have issues dealing with children with behavioral problems, but that a day that ends with restraint does not reflect a productive day.
The Melnicks take issue with public schools that put their most difficult students with their least trained staff, such as ed-techs.
“It takes talent to work with these kids,” Harvey said. “You have to be calm, relaxed, even when they’re screaming at you. It takes years of training.”
— Emily Parkhurst