Hell Rooms Of Calvert County Public Schools Part III: Superintendent Daniel Curry Responds

April 1, 2019

The following article was submitted to SMNEWSNET by Waller Squared Media Productions.

Read part one of the series HERE.
Read part two of the series HERE.

Superintendent Daniel Curry said he first learned of Calvert County’s statistics on the use of restraint and seclusion approximately one month ago.  “Well, my initial thought is that, that’s not good.  And we’ve obviously got some work to do.”

Curry added, “We have a wide range of responsibility here and we take it seriously, and we certainly do take seriously reports such as this that shows us in a ranking that we don’t like being in.”

In a March 21st email, Calvert County Public Schools Board of Education President Dawn Balinski wrote, “I was shocked to see the high number of incidences in Calvert and have asked the Superintendent to investigate and report back to the Board.”

Curry confirmed that the investigation is underway.  “First of all, we’ve been digging into the data ourselves, looking at just how we are reporting what’s being recorded. . . I do want to say that I’ve been advised by staff that they have discovered that for some things we report, that other school districts tell us that they don’t… not that that is all of the issue.  We’ve got things to deal with”, said Curry.

In Waller Squared’s previous reporting, we compared Calvert County’s policy to what is written in Maryland regulations, and noted that Calvert’s policy seemed to permit the practice of seclusion for student behaviors that don’t rise to the level of “imminent, serious, physical harm”, as required by State regulations.

According to Leslie Margolis, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, the State regulations (COMAR) do not define “imminent, serious physical harm.”  She wrote in an email to us,  “The Maryland State Department of Education explained in its 2014 fact sheet regarding restraint and seclusion that the term has the same meaning as serious bodily injury in federal law and regulation.  The fact sheet is guidance and does not have the force of statute or regulation, but it does represent the agency’s interpretation of its governing statute and regulations.”

Margolis could not comment on the Calvert County Public Schools’ policy specifically, as she has not reviewed the entire policy and other guidance documents and procedures the school system may have in place.

The Maryland State Department of Education’s factsheet indicates that, unless otherwise provided for in a student’s behavior intervention plan, restraint and seclusion are prohibited unless there is:

  1. a substantial risk of death;
  2. extreme physical pain;
  3. protracted and obvious disfigurement; or
  4. protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.

We asked Curry if he had reviewed Calvert County’s policy since Waller Squared’s first reporting on this issue. “I haven’t really myself, but my staff tells me they agree that our language doesn’t match up to what today’s language is supposed to be, so we’ll be changing our policy”, Curry told us.

Curry volunteered that the investigation has revealed instances whereby the school documented a restraint incident, when it isn’t even clear that the situation was one that required reporting.

“A student might just be uncooperative and walking to the office and might just flop down on the floor and say ‘I’m not going’ and it might be where the school cafeteria is about to release a whole bunch of kids in the hallway, – my understanding is that sometimes students like that are transported with proper techniques to get them just out of the way of the traffic, and it’s not a matter of where they’re flailing about or resisting, except by just becoming a big pile of not helping, not walking. It’s not about someone getting hurt.  It’s just about getting out of the way of traffic . . .My understanding is, we’ve learned from other school systems that they don’t record that as a restraint.”

Curry also volunteered that the review has found reports that show the correct and appropriate practice of restraint and seclusion by Calvert County Public School personnel.

Curry didn’t offer in his initial explanation whether or not the investigation has revealed  any questionable reports, where staff may have overreached with the application of restraint or seclusion; so, we asked him directly.  He replied, “Yeah, I think we have.  I think we’re questioning, anyway.  It may not be clear in the documentation submitted by the school, but the numbers cause us to question, was that necessary?”

We asked Curry about the significance of not having the “imminent serious physical harm” standard in Calvert’s policy; namely, we asked if the investigation found instances of children being secluded or restrained for actions or behaviors that did not rise to the level of “imminent, serious physical harm” as described in COMAR?   Curry said, “I can’t speak to that much detail because I haven’t done that kind of review, but my staff is involved in that kind of review.  You know, the bottom line is that we want to comply, and we want to be sure we do it right.  So if there are any instances where we have, where we see patterns, where we have not followed the appropriate standard, we will fix that.”

Curry also told us, “The fact that our written procedures and our written policies may not match up word for word with what current law says, does not necessarily evidence that we have violated the law, because in the end it is what did the school do, was the school prudent in its exercise of these resolutions, or was it not? Did they do it properly or did they do it not, not properly?  Not what was in writing, but what was executed.”

We subsequently asked Leslie Margolis, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, to comment on Superintendent Curry’s position with respect to Calvert’s written policy. Margolis could not offer a comment about Calvert County’s policy specifically, because she is not familiar with it in its entirety. “I will say in general, there are two possibilities if a jurisdiction’s written policies do not reflect what is required by law.  One possibility is that the jurisdiction actually does comply with all legal requirements but just has not gone through the process of conforming its policies to actual practice and to the legal requirements that govern.  The other possibility is that the jurisdiction does not comply with all legal requirements and perhaps views the policy as interchangeable with or as a substitute for the law”, Margolis advised.

Several different parents have provided Waller Squared with the signed reports various school personnel completed to record instances of seclusion and restraint. Parents have provided us with school records dating back to 2016. These documents reveal that since at least 2016, Calvert County Public School special education students have apparently been restrained and secluded for behaviors including splashing water at staff, toggling light switches, tipping over chairs, damaging window insect screens, and similar non-injurious acts.

Curry said, “All things aside, we acknowledge that we’ve got to do some training for our staff because transport, seclusion, restraint, – those are all reactionary responses to a behavior that we would rather have prevented.”

He further noted, “I’d like to think that it’s possible for us to improve our knowledge and understanding of what can be done so you have fewer instances where you feel you need to restrain or where you need to seclude. What are the buttons that we don’t want to push for a particular student that might set them off and cause these kinds of things to happen.”

Superintendent Curry told of the first time he learned of the practice of seclusion. “When I first arrived here in Calvert County, I had to ask what some of these spaces were for, because I worked in school districts that didn’t have any kind of space that could be even used for seclusion.  If you don’t have a space set aside for that, it’s a tool that you don’t have in your tool kit, and you find other solutions.” Curry did not indicate what, if any, direction he provided to school system personnel after he first observed these rooms and learned of the practice of seclusion in Calvert County.

Curry added, “I want to reemphasize that a big part of our training that we’ve got to get better at is, what kinds of things can we do for our staff to make it so they don’t even have to consider, or they reduce the number of times that they would even need to consider, [seclusion or restraint].”

Curry also explained that this issue is not a simple issue to address, nor is it one dimensional.  “We have to acknowledge that here is the other big issue. We have had at numerous Board meetings, and I have received frequent communications, from both teachers and parents, asking why are these children with violent tendencies in my room.  And I’m concerned about the safety of my other children… parents tell me…why is this child here?  My child reported that another child in his classroom threw something across the room, threw a chair, threw a desk… and those numbers are increasing, more and more.  We have very young children, ages 5, 6, 7, 8, who have challenges, not necessarily yet into special education… perhaps, but have challenges with emotional control, and don’t deal with adversity or disappointment in effective ways, so we have more and more tantrums, more and more physical acting out.  And we have staff getting hurt, and we have parents calling us and asking us why is that child taking away from my child’s education. So, we have to address the issues of seclusion and restraint . . . we will certainly want to reduce the frequency with which we have to use those kinds of tools.  We have to balance out the needs of the few for the needs of the many and try to meet everyone’s needs while keeping everyone safe.”

In the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a separate education for African-American children was not an equal education. Subsequent court holdings and federal legislation have established similar equal education access rights to students with disabilites.

The U.S. Department of Education website explains that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that requires public schools to provide a free and “appropriate” education to eligible children with disabilities.  The law also ensures special education and related services to those children.

According to the American Psychological Association’s website, “Prior to IDEA, over 4 million children with disabilities were denied appropriate access to public education. Many children were denied entry into public school altogether, while others were placed in segregated classrooms, or in regular classrooms without adequate support for their special needs.”

WrightsLaw is an organization which publishes information about special education law, education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities.  According to the information published on their website, IDEA requires “school districts to place students in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their nondisabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled, unless a student’s individualized education program (IEP) requires some other arrangement.”

What’s next?

Our investigative reporting on this issue will continue.  We are still awaiting a response from Calvert County Public Schools on our request to inspect records pursuant to the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act.

Though our reporting thus far has mainly focused on Calvert’s seclusion policy and the lack of the “imminent, serious physical harm” standard, our next article will cover issues we have discovered that may point to a broader and more systemic failure in the management and internal accounting of student behavior interventions in the Calvert County Public School System.

About the author: Brian Waller is a retired police administrator, crisis intervention, Mental Health First Aid and law enforcement use-of-force instructor.  At one time a criminal investigator, he now applies those same skills and professional standards towards investigative reporting, presenting cases in the court of public opinion.

Brian does not conduct for-hire private investigations; rather, he follows tips and leads to conducts pro bono public investigation on issues of significance to local communities.  He writes about his findings through the honed craft of advocacy journalism.  Brian does not get paid for conducting investigations or writing articles, – putting  the “free” in freelance reporting.  He co-manages Waller Squared Media Productions, LLC with Robert Waller, and may be reached at Brian@WallerSquaredMedia.com

Brian Waller is a member of the U.S. Press Association as well as the Constitution First Amendment Press Association.