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In wake of McAuliffe ‘seclusion room’ controversy, a Colorado lawmaker wants to introduce a bill to ban them

Rep. Regina English, an El Paso County Democrat, has committed to sponsoring the bill following whistleblower testimony about conditions at the school
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Posted at 4:17 PM, Aug 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-07 18:17:49-04

DENVER – A Colorado lawmaker has committed to sponsoring a bill to ban seclusion rooms at all Colorado K-12 schools in the wake of the controversy at McAuliffe International School in Denver.

Last Thursday, several DPS officials held a news conference in which they revealed that the district was investigating the use of what they called an “incarceration room” inside McAuliffe during the 2022-2023 school year.

The claims were brought forth by a whistleblower on staff at McAuliffe, who said students of color “were quite literally dragged through the school screaming down the hallway” and locked inside Room 121E from the outside. Locks had also been placed on the windows of the room, according to DPS Vice President Auon'tai Anderson.

A day later, DPS officials said in a news release that at least three students had been placed in the “seclusion room” during the 2022-2023 school year. At least one of the students did not have an IEP or 504 plan that supported the use of a de-escalation room as an intervention tactic, according to DPS.

"This is definitely an issue for us, because these children were children of color, and anything that I can do on a state level to ensure the safety of our children, then that's what I'm going to do," said Rep. Regina English, D-El Paso County, who confirmed she was committed to sponsoring a bill banning seclusion rooms across the state. "Our kids should not be incarcerated — if you will — in schools by being locked in this seclusion room with a latch outside the door."

At a news conference Monday, Anderson said most of the statements from the whistleblower at McAuliffe – which comprises a group of seven staff members – had been corroborated by DPS investigators.

“The issue at hand extends beyond the former principal and implicates the entire administrative body,” Anderson said, adding that “this has now implicated the interim leader of the school… and this must be investigated.”

The allegations came about a month after former McAuliffe International School principal Kurt Dennis was fired for sharing confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws, according to district officials. The former principal, however, claimed he was fired after he came forward back in March to criticize DPS over safety concerns at McAuliffe International School, particularly daily pat downs of some students – the same protocol that led up to the February shooting at East High School.

During Monday’s news conference, Anderson said Dennis had released a statement admitting to putting a lock on the door while place students in that room alone, claiming the district never gave him guidance on how to place a lock on the outside of the door. Anderson said the district “would never give such guidance.”

David Lane, who is representing Dennis in a lawsuit against DPS, said in a statement Monday that his client didn't violate any DPS policies and called the room "a much more human approach than having a student arrested." His full statement is below.

De-escalation vs. seclusion rooms: What’s the difference?

In its Friday news release, the school district said it was notified on Wednesday of the inappropriate use of a "de-escalation room" at McAuliffe. DPS said de-escalation rooms exist throughout the district, but there is a difference between de-escalation and seclusion.

The district explained that de-escalation is when staff members use techniques to help calm a student who is experiencing escalating emotions. If needed, students can be brought to a de-escalation room. According to DPS, students go into de-escalation rooms voluntarily and are accompanied by an adult at all times while the door remains open.

Seclusion, on the other hand, is when a student who is experiencing escalating emotions is locked inside a room by themselves until they calm down, according to DPS. The district said de-escalation is allowed in certain circumstances, but seclusion is not.

"Under no circumstances is ‘seclusion’ a permissible intervention in DPS to support a student with needs of that type," school district officials said in their release.

DPS said what allegedly happened at MIS was seclusion, not de-escalation. The district also said the room in question did not meet DPS' de-escalation room guidelines.

Such guidelines were outlined in a 2019 memo from DPS which states that de-escalation rooms “should be equal in size to four student desks, no windows in room, one door, and only soft furniture used." Windows that are in the room should be secured or limited, and any blinds or window coverings that could be pulled down should be removed, according to the guidance.

DPS officials give update following 'seclusion room' controversy

Where the investigation by Denver Public Schools currently stands

As the investigation into what happened at McAuliffe continues, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero, who spoke about the allegations for the first time on camera Monday, said that while many details could not yet be shared, there are three things district officials have recommended:

  1. Provide training for all McAuliffe staff on administrative policy JKA, which has to do with restraints, physical hold, seclusion; as well as administrative policy JK-R, which has to do with restraint, physical holds and seclusion, before the start of their school year, which is next Monday.
  2. Review all school protocols; examine and revise school protocols regarding staff and certain access to any de-escalation room, emotional control room, timeout room and quiet room, and he has to ensure that these protocols are clear and consistent and aligned with the district policies.
  3. Establish a system for ongoing monitoring and reporting of any incidences related to monitor seclusion.

Outside of Denver Public Schools, a criminal investigation is also now underway by the Denver Police Department.

In closing remarks Monday, Michelle Quattlebaum, the secretary of the DPS Board of Education, said that while the weight of what happened at McAuliffe is staggering, “we must hold those responsible accountable, and encourage our state legislators to rewrite laws to eliminate any resemblance of an opportunity for racism from all of our institutions.”

Something English said she is willing to do.

"It's our obligation to ensure the safety of our young people when they're in our care.... to give them the high-quality education that they deserve," English said. "That's what they're in school for. They're not in school to be paddled, to be secluded away from any of their other peers. That's just simply not what they're in there for because that really impacts their mental capacity… and this is just a systemic issue that definitely needs to be dismantled."