BOULDER | Two years ago in Colorado, an elementary school principal stood behind an 8-year-old boy gripping the boy’s crossed wrists until his body went limp, his eyes fluttered, and he foamed at the mouth.
The school called 911. They also called the boy’s mother. By the time she arrived, her son was regaining consciousness, she said. The 8-year-old was on the floor, being examined by EMTs. She took him home and never brought him back to that elementary school.
The incident, and how it was recorded and reported, were investigated by the Colorado Department of Education following a complaint by the boy’s family.
The findings of that investigation — and the state’s inability to mandate changes — illustrate what some advocates, attorneys, and families say are dangerous weaknesses in Colorado law.
“There is no enforcement power,” said Jack Robinson, a Denver lawyer who represented the family of the 8-year-old boy. “There is no teeth in any of this.”
Though the school principal wrote an incident report recording what happened, the person in charge of reviewing such reports at the Boulder Valley School District didn’t look at it. Nor did she report the holds in the district’s annual restraint review.
A state complaints officer found that Boulder Valley violated several state rules, including using restraints in a non-emergency situation. But under Colorado law, the education department has no authority to require school districts to take corrective action, and it has no way to punish districts that ignore any non-mandatory recommendations it makes.
“If the school district just says, ‘Go to hell,’ there’s nothing CDE can do,” Robinson said.
The Boulder Valley School District says that’s not what happened in this case. A spokesperson said the district made some changes immediately and even more after the complaint, including reviewing its crisis intervention protocols and providing more training to its staff.
But the principal who restrained the boy remains at the elementary school. He declined to comment for this story.
The boy is no longer at the school. After the incident, he transferred to a special district-run program for students with emotional disabilities, his mother said. While most of his classmates spend some of their time in general education classrooms, the boy is too scared.
“He doesn’t get to go music, PE, and art,” said his mother, Renee, who asked that Chalkbeat not use her last name to protect her family’s privacy. “He just mentally cannot leave the room. He feels safe there but nowhere else.”
In 2017, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill intended to protect children from dangerous restraints. The bill did three things: limit a potentially deadly form of restraint called prone restraint, require school districts to file annual reports about their use of restraint and seclusion, and establish a process for families to complain about its misuse.
Many cases of restraint, which means physically restraining a child, and seclusion, which means shutting a child inside a room, involve students with disabilities. Advocates felt the 2017 bill didn’t go far enough. One major flaw was that although the bill requires districts to write annual reports, no state agency is required to collect them, meaning there is no oversight.
“Essentially, the districts are investigating themselves,” said Alison Butler, the former director of legal services for Disability Law Colorado, which advocated for more protections.
A Chalkbeat investigation last year found wide variations in how Colorado’s 10 largest school districts were reporting their use of restraint and seclusion. Some districts’ annual reviews were long and full of details, while others were just a few sentences with no data at all. Two districts refused Chalkbeat’s requests to release their reviews publicly. One of the largest districts hadn’t yet completed a review for a school year that ended nine months prior.
Boulder Valley School District did do an annual review, but it didn’t include the incident in which the 8-year-old lost consciousness. The district behavior specialist in charge of compiling the review told the state complaints officer she believed the hold on the boy had lasted less than five minutes, the threshold that would qualify it as a restraint.
Nor did the behavior specialist include a total number of restraints performed by trained staff. When the state complaints officer asked why the review was incomplete, the behavior specialist said it “was probably just [her] not being organized.”
That’s a problem — and one that will continue to fly under the radar due to the weakness in Colorado’s law, said Jennifer Levin, the director of public policy at The Arc of Colorado, a disability rights organization, and a former attorney at Disability Law Colorado.
“The reporting requirements seem to cover what we’d like to see” in an annual review, Levin said. “It’s just that nobody is going to see it.”
An ultimatum and a hold
The holds on the 8-year-old boy started with a refusal and an ultimatum, according to a 33-page decision by the state complaints officer who investigated the incident.
The boy, who Chalkbeat is not naming at his family’s request, was in third grade at Kohl Elementary School in Broomfield. One morning, he refused to do his schoolwork. He began ripping up papers and throwing them. He also broke a pencil and threw it.
In situations like these, the school’s policy is to first try a range of de-escalation strategies to get the student to calm down. Teachers can call the school principal or school social worker if they need help, but restraint is only supposed to be used as a last resort.
In this instance, the teacher asked the boy to calm down and offered to sit and talk with him. When the boy didn’t respond, the teacher called the principal, who gave the boy a choice: stop being disruptive and stay in the classroom, leave the classroom on his own and go to the office, or “be helped” to the office. The boy continued to rip up papers.
The principal “felt this situation constituted an emergency,” the complaints officer’s report says. So the principal put his hands under the boy’s armpits, lifted him out of his chair, and carried him at least part of the way to the office in that position.
The principal put the boy in the school’s “decompress room,” a small room with three sheetrock walls, one cinderblock wall, a carpeted concrete floor, and a door with a window in it. The school used it as a space for escalated students to calm down.
But on this day, the boy wasn’t calm. He started throwing art supplies that were in the room and slamming the door so hard that the walls shook. The principal told the complaints officer he was worried the boy would hurt himself, so he shut the door, secluding the boy in the room.
The boy’s behavior continued to escalate. He used a chair to ram the glass window of the door. When the principal took the chair away, leaving only a body pillow in the room, the boy shoved the tag of the body pillow and then the pillow itself into his mouth, gagging himself. When the pillow was taken away, he did the same thing with his fingers.
There were electrical boxes mounted on the wall, as well as metal conduit that carried wires from the boxes to the ceiling. The boy stepped on an electrical box, pulled himself up the wall using the conduit, and then threw his body backward to the floor.
Soon afterward, the principal put the boy in the hold in which he passed out. The principal stood behind the boy, held his wrists, and crossed the boy’s arms high across his body.
The principal told the complaints officer he felt the boy’s body “sag.” The boy didn’t respond when the principal called his name. His eyes were fluttering. The office manager, who sat with the boy while the principal called 911, said he was salivating heavily and foaming at the mouth.
The boy’s mother was at lunch with friends when she got the call to come to the school. At first, she said the principal told her that her son purposely held his breath until he passed out.
“It didn’t take long to figure out that’s not what happened,” she said. “He’s 8, a skinny little thing. This is a grown man squeezing him — and doing it wrong.”
A decision and a response
Indeed, the complaints officer expressed concern that the principal executed the holds improperly. She also questioned the decision to bring the boy to the decompress room in the first place, saying it was “not the ideal space for an escalated student.”
And she called what happened in the room “troubling.”
“Principal resorted to physical intervention without utilizing safer, less restrictive alternatives,” like standing between the boy and the electrical box, the complaints officer wrote.
When the hold the principal used is done correctly, the child’s weight is shifted back on the adult’s leg so the child can’t kick. In this instance, the principal said the boy was kicking the wall while he was in the hold, indicating to the complaints officer that the hold wasn’t right.
What’s more, the principal’s training was out of date. State rules require school staff who restrain children to be retrained every two years. The principal had last taken the training in 2016, three years before the incident.
The complaints officer said it was clear that the principal “only loosely adhered” to the proper techniques, which “jeopardized student’s safety.”
Her decision, which covered the incident where the student lost consciousness and an incident several weeks earlier involving the same student, concluded with four recommendations. She recommended the district train the principal on how to recognize an emergency and on “not using restraint as a form of discipline or as a threat to gain control of a student’s behavior.”
She also recommended the district put procedures in place to retrain staff on restraint and seclusion every two years, and strengthen its annual review process.
In a statement, Boulder Valley School District said that “while we disagree with some of the specific findings made by the Colorado Department of Education, notwithstanding the Boulder Valley School District has implemented the state’s recommendations.”
The district said that even before the investigation was complete, it had improved its training processes, its ability to track restraint and seclusion incidents, and its review procedures.
The district also clarified that school staff must write a report for each restraint incident, regardless of how many minutes it lasted. And the district directs its trainers to conduct an on-site review with school staff every time staff members physically restrain a student.
“The Boulder Valley School District takes the safety of our students very seriously and is committed to continuous improvement,” the statement says.
‘No price to pay’
After the incident, the boy developed what his mother called “a pretty intense anxiety.” Although he never returned to that elementary school, his younger sister still went there. The boy refused to go with his mother to pick her up in the afternoons.
“He didn’t even want to be in the car to drive past the school,” his mother, Renee, said.
She said the boy developed a fear of adults. If a teacher went to give him a hug, he’d cower and cry. He no longer wanted to play team sports. New environments scared him. His mother said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed medication to help.
Nearly a year after the incident, in early 2020, the boy’s family reached out to an attorney. Although the child had transferred to another school where he hasn’t been restrained or secluded, Renee said the family was still upset about what happened. Until they spoke to the lawyer, she said they didn’t know families could file complaints about restraint.
“No one ever told us that,” Renee said.
Robinson, the family’s attorney, said this case isn’t unique. He represented two other clients last year who filed restraint and seclusion complaints with the Colorado Department of Education. (Cases that are decided by state complaints officers are made public, but cases resolved in mediation are not. Both of these were decided by complaints officers.)
In one case, a seventh-grader with a traumatic brain injury was put in a headlock by a bus aide for standing up in her seat. In the other, a kindergartener with an emotional disability wet his pants. He refused to change his clothes and kicked and hit two staff members. They carried him to the nurse’s office and secluded him in a small booth used to give hearing tests to students.
State complaints officers found the school districts in both cases violated state law. The complaints officers made recommendations similar to those made in the Boulder Valley case: more training, better reporting procedures, timely completion of annual reviews.
But Robinson and other attorneys and advocates remain frustrated that the state can’t do more. Robinson specializes in special education law, and he said restraint and seclusion cases are particularly discouraging. If the state education department investigates and finds that a school district has violated a student’s rights under federal special education law, the state can order the district to address the violations — and withhold critical funding if it doesn’t comply.
The state doesn’t have that same power when it comes to restraint and seclusion cases. Paul Foster, the executive director of the special education office at the Colorado Department of Education, said his department doesn’t even have a process to follow up with districts to see if they followed the complaints officers’ recommendations.
“Laws are only effective if there’s a hammer at the end,” said Igor Raykin, an Aurora education attorney who was not involved in this case. “That is the whole problem here.”
Renee, the boy’s mother, called the flaws in the law shameful.
“All it does is empower these administrators to be able to do whatever they want,” she said. “Even when the state says they did wrong, they have no price to pay.”