Plainfield school accused of food denial, using ‘jail cell’
By Emily Groves, Norwich Bulletin, March, 6, 2010

Plainfield, Conn. — Withholding food, a “jail cell” time-out room and unnecessary restraint of special education students are among the allegations being made against Shepard Hill Elementary School’s Clinical Day Treatment Program by paraprofessionals, parents and a Board of Education member.

“It’s an ugly mess,” Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Angela Klonoski said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”

The Shepard Hill program is one of five in the district for children with emotional or intellectual disabilities, Plainfield Superintendent of Schools Mary Conway said.

Philip LaFemina, coordinator for the programs, said the Shepard Hill program includes eight students who spend most of their day with the program. It also provides support services for another five to six students who spend most of their day in regular classrooms. He said eight full and part-time paraprofessionals work in the program, though other paraprofessionals assist when students are immersed into classrooms.

The Shepard Hill program, for first- through third-grade students, has been gaining a lot of attention in recent months from parents, school and state officials.

Klonoski said the state Department of Children and Families and the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities are conducting investigations into the program. State officials said they cannot confirm whether investigations are occurring because their investigations deal with children and are protected by shield laws.

It all started with Diane Smith-Sanders, a former paraprofessional at the program.

Smith-Sanders said she was hired in early December and within a few weeks, began to notice some troubling practices.

Among them was the withholding of food. Smith-Sanders said she witnessed four occasions where students were not given lunch because an assignment wasn’t completed.

“I was told that food was a privilege, and they had a choice; if they finished their assignments, then they could eat their lunch,” she said.

Smith-Sanders said she voiced her concerns about the practice and within three days was told that because of the rearranging of staff, her position had been eliminated. She was offered a position with another school in the district but declined.

“I know without a doubt that my position was eliminated because I said something,”

Smith-Sanders said. “I didn’t like what was going on, and that caused them trouble.”

Smith-Sanders has been substitute teaching in the district since then and is applying for a position in another school.

Conway said when Smith-Sanders raised concerns, the district immediately started an investigation. Conway said a teacher had told students they must demonstrate they are in control to have food.

“It was stopped immediately,” Conway said. “That has not occurred again and will not occur again.”

LaFemina said he expects to receive the report at the end of the month from the DCF investigation into food withholding.

“I’m confident that charge will not be substantiated,” LaFemina said.

‘Jail cell’

But Smith-Sanders’ list of concerns also included a time-out room the size of a refrigerator, complete with a door, bolt and a window covered with paper.

Smith-Sanders described it as “like a jail cell” and said she believed children were being locked inside too often. It was used not just for children acting up but for those who had not completed assignments.

Conway said there was a door on the time-out room, but it has since been removed, another move prompted by Smith-Sanders’ concerns.

LaFemina said the legal term is a seclusion room, and the Shepard Hill program had used one until about six weeks ago.

“The main reason we had a seclusion room was to prevent physical holding,” LaFemina said.

But Smith-Sanders and others also have concerns about the way physical holding, or restraint, is done at the program. Smith-Sanders said she witnessed children being restrained by as many as five adults, and she questioned whether any restraint at the school was legal because she was not sure the paraprofessionals were trained.

LaFemina said every paraprofessional is trained in restraint yearly, under the Physical/Psychological Management Training model.

Lisa Wickham pulled her son, Anthony, 6, out of the program in December after he came home with a bruise on his wrist and a note in his daily book that said he had been restrained by five adults that day. Wickham said Anthony weighs 48 pounds.

LaFemina said typically two to three adults are involved in a physical hold. On rare occasions, four adults hold the child while one person observes to ensure the child’s breathing does not become distressed.

Last straw

For Wickham, the bruised wrist was the final straw in what had been a series of disturbing reports from her son. Wickham said there were many days when Anthony returned home without eating his snack and had made comments about having snack time when he was “a good boy” and not when he was “a bad boy.” Anthony also told his mother he didn’t like when the teachers sat on him.

“It was stuff like that that came out afterward that made me say, ‘he’s not stepping back into that school,’” she said.

Making connections

In her efforts to get her son transferred to Moosup Elementary School, Wickham connected with Klonoski.

Klonoski, a disability policy specialist for the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities, said five adults to one child should never be necessary and restraint should be used only as a last resort.

“And that was never the case with this child, not in any of the files I’ve read,” Klonoski said. Pam Corey, a paraprofessional at Shepard Hill for 12 years, said though she did not work in the Clinical Day Treatment Program, she had frequent dealings with its staff because some of its students spend part of the day in regular classrooms.

Corey said she witnessed children being locked into the time-out room and restrained by several adults, but something she observed in the lunch room, when she approached a crying child with a teacher standing over him, most disturbed her.

“He had a sandwich from the day before that they were making him eat before he could eat his hot lunch,” Corey said. “That was so unacceptable. It made me sick.”

Corey moved from Shepard Hill in October 2009 to Plainfield High School, where she works now.

LaFemina said there have not been any disciplinary issues with staff in the last year. He said the program and the staff members work very hard to meet state standards and to provide the best educational opportunities for these students who would struggle and likely fail in a traditional educational program.

“We have helped more than 150 families with the program,” LaFemina said. “The goal is to help these children better control their behavior and be mainstreamed as soon as possible.”

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