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Restraint, seclusion rooms in schools discussed
0219law
Don King listens as wife Tina recalls the 2004 hanging death of her then 13-year-old son, Jonathan, at a Gainesville special needs school. A citizens group met Thursday at St. Michael Catholic Church to discuss the future of restraint and seclusion rooms in Georgia schools. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Don and Tina King are on a mission to see that what happened to their son never happens to anyone else’s child.

Jonathan King was 13 when he hanged himself inside a “seclusion room” at a Gainesville school for special needs children in 2004.

The unfurnished, 8-foot-by-8-foot room at the Alpine Psychoeducational Program was used for dealing with unruly children. The Kings say they never saw the room until his death and claim school officials kept them in the dark about its use.

“They never told us how often he went in,” Tina King said Thursday. “They would just tell us they were using ‘time out.’”

“Me and my family and friends, we want this seclusion and restraint done away with,” Don King said. “I miss my little man. I miss him real bad. Our goal is to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

On Thursday, an attorney for a nonprofit legal advocacy organization briefed a citizens group at St. Michael Catholic Church on the future of restraint and seclusion rooms in Georgia schools. The state Department of Education is considering the adoption of new policies and procedures that would end the use of seclusion rooms and severely limit how children can be restrained.

“It’s a totally unregulated practice,” said Leslie Lipson, a staff attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office. “Currently there are no rules. (Teachers) don’t have to tell supervisors, they don’t have to tell parents, they don’t have to tell the Department of Education. It is a wild west.”

A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education did not return an e-mail and phone message seeking comment Thursday.

Officials with Gainesville’s Alpine Psychoeducational Program referred questions to Sandy Addis, director of Pioneer RESA, the agency that supervises the school. Addis was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

In court documents filed as part of a lawsuit brought by the Kings against Alpine and Pioneer RESA, the defendants note that the school did have in place a set of policies and procedures for use of the seclusion room, including a practice of checking the occupants visually every 15 minutes.

A Hall County Superior Court judge and the Georgia Court of Appeals have both ruled that the Kings did not have a case for a civil rights complaint against the school.

The Kings’ story and the lawsuit it prompted has drawn national news media attention. Lipson said it’s a credit to the couple’s campaign of raising awareness to the issue that seclusion rooms in Georgia schools could soon be history.

But advocates are still pushing for the elimination of restraint, which was blamed in the 2005 death of a 13-year-old boy at Cleveland’s Appalachian Wilderness Camp, a therapeutic outdoor program for troubled youth.

“Restraint should only be used when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury,” Lipson said.

According to a draft version of the proposed new rules, the state Department of Education would ban the use of mechanical restraint, most often seen in strapping children to chairs. Prone restraint, a face-down method that led to the death in Cleveland, would also be prohibited.

But Lipson’s group still has problems with the proposed rules, including a provision that would allow local school officials to use their discretion in when to use physical restraint.

The group also wants to see enforcement provisions that would hold faculty and staff accountable.

A third revised draft of the rules is expected to be released by the Department of Education in coming weeks.

Lipson encouraged members of the Georgia Concerned Citizens group to write the state Department of Education and give their input on the new rules.

“It’s very important that the department hear from people about not only what they don’t like, but what they do like,” she said.

“The goal is two-fold: to bring forth the public into the process, and to bring forth a rule that is significantly strong, so we can look back at these stories and say, if this rule was in place, this would not have happened.”

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