HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Horry County Schools has agreed to take action after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights resolved a compliance review that found that the schools inappropriately restrained and secluded students with disabilities, according to an announcement Tuesday morning.

The agreement was made Monday. The case was opened on Jan. 29, 2019.

An analysis concluded that the Office of Civil Rights is “concerned about the staff’s use of restraint or seclusion to address non-compliant student behavior” and that staff didn’t limit the use of the techniques to emergency situations, according to a letter addressed to Superintendent Rick Maxey.

“This suggests that staff may have unlawfully treated students with disabilities differently than students without disabilities,” and may have failed to implement plans that addressed noncompliant behavior.

The district has agreed to change its restraint or seclusion practices and to “examine and remedy prior instances” when those tactics were used on students.

“I thank Horry County Schools for its commitment to revise its practices and procedures regarding the use of restraint and seclusion to ensure that students with disabilities receive the education to which they are entitled,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in the announcement.

In response to the investigation, the district has agreed to revise its procedures, clarify the roles of employees who are involved in monitoring and overseeing the district’s use of restraint or seclusion, modify its recordkeeping system and create a plan to accurately report data to the federal government, train staff on changes and to implement a monitoring program to assess the district’s use of restraint or seclusion on students. It has also agreed to review files of students currently enrolled in the district since the 2017-18 academic year who were restrained or secluded in order to find out if any of them require additional education for time that they missed.

“The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) conducts nationwide compliance reviews in reference to the use of restraint and seclusion rooms in public schools,” Horry County Schools said in a written statement to News13. “In 2019, Horry County Schools was selected for an onsite visit in South Carolina and the results of their visit were recently released. Horry County Schools has been and will continue to ensure that students with disabilities receive the education to which they are entitled. Since 2019, Horry County Schools has made modifications as recommended, and we will continue to follow any additional recommendations provided by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.” 

The investigation included reviewing records on procedures and staff training, logs for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic year, four days of site visits, interviews with 21 staff members and visits to Waccamaw Elementary School, Forestbrook Elementary School, Whittemore Park Middle School, St. James Intermediate School and the Therapeutic Learning Center, according to a letter addressed to the district. The schools were selected because district data showed they made the highest amount of reported incidents where students were restrained and secluded.

The letter, dated Tuesday, states that district data showed there were 56 incidents of students with disabilities being restrained and 29 who were secluded during the 2017-18 year. However, the federal investigation found that 76 students were restrained and 44 were secluded.

For the 2018-19 year, the district reported 173 restraint incidents, which included 39 students with disabilities across eight schools. Of those incidents, 83.8% happened at the Therapeutic Learning Center. That same year, there were 94 seclusion incidents at nine schools, involving 31 students. Of those, 73.4% were at the Therapeutic Learning Center.

Two of those students were not identified as having a disability at the time, but have since been labeled as having one.

In a year, one student was secluded 131 times, totaling 13 hours and 43 minutes. Another was restrained 143 times, totaling 27 hours and 38 minutes. A third was secluded 86 times, totaling 10 hours and 18 minutes. The review found that there’s no evidence that the students were reevaluated that year, according to the letter.

Of the students who were restrained, about half of their parents said that the missed instructional time was not made up. One staff member told the investigative team that makeup work times are built into time at the Therapeutic Learning Center.

The review also found that students were restrained or secluded as punishment for refusing to stay in an area, walking out of class, not following instructions and disrupting the class, according to the letter. In one instance, a student was secluded after refusing to sit down.

The district had no written procedures or guidance on restraint and seclusion, according to the letter. Students can only be restrained for 15 minutes, up to 60 minutes daily. If a student hasn’t calmed down within 10 minutes, then the team can decide to place the child in the seclusion room, where the door is left open. If the student is acting aggressively, then the door is closed and staff try to communicate with the student every 10 to 15 minutes.

If a student has been secluded for more than an hour, staff have to call the lead rehabilitative behavior health services counselor, a school administrator and the student’s parents. Staff may also suggest taking the student to a hospital emergency room.

Physical restraint should be used as a last resort when a student “is a danger to self or others,” according to the letter. Seclusion and restraint should be used in “extraordinary circumstances arising from an emergency crisis where the behavior of a student poses a threat of imminent, serious, physical harm to self or others.

After either technique is used, an administrator must be notified, and then tell the student’s parent by telephone and writing within 24 hours. A debriefing is also required.

Parents weren’t notified in 112 instances in 2017-18, and in 46 instances in 2018-19, according to the letter, although the review did not determine if parents were told orally. When they were alerted, the district “provided minimal information” to parents about the incident.

The district did not have written procedures or guidance about oversight of logs, according to the letter.