2007-12-19 / Front Page

"This abuse must stop!"

Parents pull son from school over restraint issue
By Donna C. Gregory NEWS EDITOR

"This abuse must stop!"

Priscilla and Chip Greene share some family time with their three sons (from left), Travis, 6, Coleman, 9, and Parker, 11.
A Clover Hill Elementary second-grader is getting a longer than normal holiday break after his parents withdrew him from school amid claims of physical abuse.

Chip and Priscilla Greene have removed their son, Coleman, from Clover Hill following a series of incidents where he was allegedly physically restrained by a special education aide. The situation escalated on Nov. 30 when the Greenes received a call from school, asking them to come pick up Coleman, who suffers from Down's Syndrome and ADHD. When Chip Greene arrived at school, a staff member who the family chose not to identify, advised him to check Coleman for bruises. A physician later confirmed bruising on Coleman's back, shoulder and chest and a scratch on his neck. Coleman has not been back to school since.

This is not the first time Coleman has been injured due to the use of physical restraint, says Priscilla Greene. While attending Hopkins Elementary School as a kindergartener, Coleman was physically restrained by a teacher in front of his mother after he walked out of a classroom without permission. "She had him on the ground with his arms crossed, and her legs were wrapped around his legs," recalls Coleman's mother. "I was told it was done only in extreme circumstances." Priscilla Greene, however, doesn't believe walking out of a classroom qualifies as an "extreme circumstance."

Three weeks later, Coleman allegedly came home from school with a sprained arm. He was ultimately moved to a different special education classroom, and there were no more incidents the rest of the year.

After Coleman was injured at Hopkins, the Greenes asked the school system to adopt a general restraint policy. Now, more than two years later, the Greenes say their request has been ignored.

Chip Coleman spoke before school board members last week, asking them yet again to enact a restraint policy. "The policy would consist of guidelines and procedures that school staff must follow in order to protect our children," Chip Coleman told board members. "I stand before you tonight with a heavy heart because the school system has allowed my son to be physically restrained again and injured…This abuse must stop! Physical restraint cannot be used unless a guideline or procedure is put into place that will protect the child."

Chip Coleman held up a notebook for board members to see, saying, "This is Coleman's homework journal. It is a log of what goes on in Coleman's day. Beginning Sept. 17 and for the next 11 weeks, Coleman was physically restrained 10 times, placed in time-out with restraint 14 times, regrouped with restraint 11 times, and placed in secluded time-out in the special education classroom or conference room 22 times. And this only reflects the times the school staff wrote in this journal."

The Greenes were unaware of what was happening to Coleman until they specifically asked if restraint was being used. Coleman's aide had begun to complain that he was biting, kicking and head-butting during the school day. The Greenes believe Coleman's bad behavior was a result of being physically restrained by his aide. When Coleman would fail to complete his class work, Priscilla Greene says his aide would forcibly remove him from his general education classroom and take him to a special education classroom or conference room to "regroup."

Two other parents related similar stories to school board members, before again asking for a physical restraint policy.

"William has been restrained," said Cheryl Curbeam, referring to her five-year-old son who has developmental delays. "This was without my knowledge. Why was I never informed that teachers were allowed to restrain my son? We will not remain silent on this issue."

Donna Hobbs related an incident at Ecoff Elementary where her son, Cody, was allegedly locked inside a closet for 30 minutes. "I did not get so much as a note home," complained Hobbs. "The school has done nothing to resolve this issue. The teacher has received no consequence for her actions."

Priscilla Greene shares Hobbs' frustration. "Just because [Coleman] has a disability, that does not give them any more right to put their hands on him," she says, adding that the use of restraint has traumatized her son. "Now, he says school is a big scary monster."

On many school days, Coleman would complain of stomach aches. Priscilla Greene now believes that was his way of trying to avoid going to school.

The Greenes are currently juggling work schedules in order to care for Coleman during the day when he'd normally be at school. "We are going to try to get through the holidays, and then we are going to try again to place him [in a private school] in January. It is not safe for him to go back to school in Chesterfield County."

The family has also hired an attorney to explore their legal options.

Debra Marlow, director of community relations, provided the following statement about the school system's use of physical restraint: "There are procedures and guidelines that staff follow when needed. These actions are based on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education. Restraint is only used when necessary and when there is a danger to the child or others."

Earlier this month, a 35-page document containing recently revised procedures for "physical interventions/restraint" was sent to all county schools by a special education instructional specialist.

When asked if this document qualifies as the "general restraint policy" the Greene family has requested, Marlow replied, "It's not a policy, it's a procedure. It is the procedure that is used and is adopted from state department of education regulations."

The revision updates prior documents that date back to 1996.

Marlow declined to comment on the Greene family's allegations of physical abuse, saying that would violate the school system's privacy policy. "We wouldn't discuss individual student's cases publicly," said Marlow.

She did confirm, however, that the school system is reviewing its use of restraint on students in special education programs. "Any time a member of the public brings a concern to a school board meeting, we would investigate it," said Marlow.

Construction projects

The school board moved ahead on additions and renovations at several schools. Members approved a $2.4 million contract for an addition

at Bon Air Elementary School. When completed in summer 2009, the addition will include a new administrative office and clinic, music room, art room and student restrooms. The existing administrative offices will be converted to teacher work rooms, a computer room and a classroom.

A $3.5 million contract was approved for an addition at Falling Creek Elementary School, set for completion in fall 2009. The new space will include administrative space and six classrooms. The existing administrative area will be renovated into student restrooms and classrooms.

The board also approved architectural contracts to design additions for Midlothian and Swift Creek middle schools.

More construction

The school board approved its 2009-14 Capital Improvement Program, which includes full funding to build one elementary school and partial funding for one high school.

The location of the elementary school is currently unknown. According to enrollment projections, four geographic areas will need a new elementary school to relieve overcrowding by 2014. They include the Dale area (Hopkins, Hening and Chalkley elementary schools), the Route 360 West area (Woolridge, Grange Hall and Winterpock), the northwestern area (Watkins, Weaver, Swift Creek and Evergreen) and the southern area (Harrowgate, Wells and Gates).

The new high school will most likely be built in the central area of the county to relieve overcrowding at Thomas Dale, L.C. Bird and Meadowbrook high schools.

The plan also includes numerous additions and renovations at schools throughout the county.

Lost funding

Enrolling fewer students this year caused the school system to lose $2.1 million in state funding, and schools are expected to lose another $3.9 million due to county revenues not meeting projections.

On the plus side, the school system has received $3 million in surplus interest earnings on "GO bonds" and $413,000 in "gain sharing" from Anthem.

These four changes have resulted in a net loss of $2.6 million in operating revenues for the 2007-08 school year.

The school system will use $2.8 million in health care and Medicare savings to offset the loss. This money was available because health insurance premiums didn't increase as much as expected.

Design for Excellence

The school board approved its six-year Design for Excellence Plan. During a public comment period, several parents expressed concerns about the elimination of honors classes at James River and other high schools, saying some students need an alternative between AP courses that require college-level work and regular classes that might not be challenging enough.

Board members assured parents that the six-year plan does not call for the elimination of honors classes. Superintendent Marcus Newsome planned to discuss the elimination of honors classes with the principals of the affected schools last week.

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