© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri schools restrained and secluded 1,000 students last year. Justyn Jefferson was one

  Justyn Jefferson spends a lot of time with his mom at the food pantry where she works. Shay pulled her 11-year-old son of school after he was injured in a seclusion room.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Justyn Jefferson spends a lot of time with his mom at the food pantry where she works. Shay pulled her 11-year-old son of school after he was injured in a seclusion room.

Justyn Jefferson is a quiet kid who keeps to himself — until his favorite topics come up. The 11-year-old lights up and starts talking a mile a minute at just the mention of Dragon Ball Z, Sonic the Hedgehog or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Shay Jefferson says her son loves watching TV and watching YouTube on his iPhone.

“Justyn said he's a grown up kid. Justyn doesn't play with toys. That's not a thing,” she said. “Justyn, he likes his electronics.”

He spends most days with his mom at the food pantry in Belton where she works, looking those topics up on the phone she gave him for his birthday. He hasn’t been in school since February 13. Shay pulled him out after the Belton School District secluded and restrained Justyn for reasons she says don’t meet the state’s criteria.

Restraint is the use of physical force to immobilize a student. Seclusion is confining a student to a room they can’t freely leave. Both are supposed to be used only when a student poses a threat to themselves or others or is destroying property.

When Justyn was having a meltdown in kindergarten, a gym teacher restrained him to the cafeteria floor for 17 minutes. The teacher didn’t let him up until Shay came to the school and asked her to release Justyn.

The same month, he was restrained again, and came out of it with a busted lip and a bruise on his head.

In second grade, a staff member restrained Justyn after he refused to get off the bus. Justyn said he was having a rough time then, and added that the staff member twisted his arms and pulled him by the legs when restraining him on the school bus.

“Even when I said he was hurting me, he wouldn’t even stop,” Justyn said.

 Shay Jefferson said her son Justyn has been restrained and secluded at school beginning when he was in kindergarden.
Shay Jefferson
Shay Jefferson said her son Justyn has been restrained and secluded at school beginning when he was in kindergarden.

Justyn was born with congenital bilateral cataracts that meant he saw everything through what Shay described as a “thin cotton film.” He also has autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, anxiety and other disabilities which, combined with an inability to see well, often led to what Shay called “big behaviors” — hitting people and throwing things.

“Imagine clouds in front of your eyes and you have this whole world that they've put you in,” Jefferson said. “I might have a few big behaviors. Because anxiety will do that to you.”

Before he had surgery to fix his eyesight in 2020, Shay says Justyn was caught in a cycle of being restrained and disciplined, put in specialized classrooms, continuing to be disciplined and being sent home so often that the school district asked her to keep Justyn at home. He has yet to finish a school year in the classroom.

Still, Shay said he’s reading at a seventh grade level. He taught himself to recognize words by instant messaging other players in the video game “Among Us.”

The Belton School District reported 175 instances of seclusion and restraint in the last school year. The school district said in an emailed statement that it is unable to comment on any specific incident, but has adopted seclusion and restraint policies in accordance with state statute.

“The Belton School District continues to meet the standards set forth, including, but not limited to reporting all events into the state monitoring system within the 30 day timeframe,” the district said in an emailed statement. “This revision includes (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) approved private agencies the district contracts with.”

New but limited data

Schools restrained or secluded more than 1,000 children in Missouri during the last school year, according to the data from schools who did report to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It was the first year the state collected that data, after a 2021 law required school districts to report instances of seclusion and restraint to both the state and the student’s parents.

Within 30 days of secluding or restraining a student, schools are supposed to submit information about the incident — when it happened, where, the reason, the type of seclusion or restraint used and how long a student was secluded or restrained.

DESE doesn’t review the data to check whether school districts are reporting, if they have a high number of seclusion and restraint incidents or what types of restraints that they are using.

Districts are not disciplined for not reporting incidences of seclusion or restraint, for using techniques banned by the new law, or for secluding and restraining children for reasons other than a danger of physically harming themselves or others or destroying property — the only acceptable reasons under the 2021 law.

DESE said in an emailed statement that it recommends school districts develop practices, guidelines, and training to “mitigate circumstances leading to extreme responses to crisis situations.”

The department said it has an annual District Assurance Checklist that school leaders should use to verify they're meeting state requirements at the local level.

The Missouri Disability Empowerment Foundation, which pushed for the 2021 law, is examining district and state-level data.

Tracey Bloch, MoDE’s director of legislative advocacy, said they expected those numbers to be high, even though not all school districts are reporting.

“We knew it was going to be bad,” Bloch said “But now we have numbers and we can say, ‘Look at it, now, how can we fix this?”

Bloch said the law intentionally does not lay out consequences for not reporting or reporting high numbers.

“It's a fine line, because if you add teeth to this bill, and schools can get in trouble, then they're going to hide their numbers,” Bloch said. “We absolutely cannot put pressure on them, because we don't want it to backfire. And then our kids are going to be the ones who suffer for it. “

MoDE said it needs accurate data because it wants to look for patterns to figure out what school districts are doing to keep numbers down and use that information to help educate districts secluding and restraining at high rates.

Missouri does not collect any demographic data about which students are secluded and restrained.

Nationally, most students restrained and secluded were students with disabilities, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Students with disabilities make up 12% of students enrolled but represent 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students secluded. Black students make up 15% of all students enrolled, but make up 27% of students restrained and 23% of students secluded.

Laura Strunk, a professor at Minnesota State University who conducted a national study on seclusion and restraint in schools, said districts should track age, disability status, whether they have behavioral plans and a student’s emotional state at the time of seclusion or restraint. She said that while some states may think this is too much data to collect, it could help them better serve their students.

Justyn Jefferson, the 11-year-old Belton student, is Black. His mom, Shay, told school officials she felt Justyn’s race and disability status impacted how he was secluded and restrained.

“Maybe it doesn't matter to you because he's just another disabled Black kid that's not worth your time or your effort,” she said in a letter to school officials. “In your eyes, he's probably going to end up in jail or dead anyway, so why not teach him how to be okay behind a locked door? Because that's what the safe rooms are. Are we getting him started early?”

‘You can’t just lock someone in a room’

Shay enrolled Justyn back at the district in spring 2022 for the end of his fourth-grade year. In July, the district placed him at the Olathe campus of Summit ABA Academy, a school that specializes in applied behavioral analysis — a psychological intervention for children with autism.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

The school secluded Justyn from classmates multiple times by placing him in a “safe room.”

“It's that gross, yellowish white. It's too yellow to be a beige, kind of just gross cafeteria color,” Shay said. “There's nothing in there and it has a steel door. I guess the best way I could describe it would be if somebody locks you in a cooler.”

Shay said the school district would sometimes shut the door on Justyn in this room, despite his anxiety disorder.

The main reason the school gave Shay for secluding Justyn was that he mocked others — but Shay said he often mimics what that people say because that is how he learns with his autism.

“Just for mocking my peers — that was it,” Justyn said. "You can't just lock someone in a room with no lights and camera watching their every move.”

Shay said he was also secluded for tearing or crumpling paper, which the school described to her as destruction of property — an allowed use of seclusion and restraint under state law. In February, she says they secluded Justyn for “passive refusal” when he dropped a pencil, picked it up when a teacher told him to, dropped it again and wouldn’t pick it up a second time.

This time, when they closed the door, he broke his ankle while trying to kick his way out.

Before he could exit the room, Shay says he was required to sit with his back against the wall for three minutes and complete a puzzle to show he was calm enough to rejoin the other students.

“If I had broken my ankle? I cannot imagine that I would have been able to sit calmly with my back against the wall,” Jefferson said.

Summit said it cannot legally share personal student information, but follows all agency, state and district guidelines on seclusion and restraint.

"We are dedicated to providing excellent educational, behavioral and social support, utilizing the latest approved technology for our students," the school president said in an email.

Shay filed a complaint with the Kansas City branch of the federal Office of Civil Rights. She said the office is still investigating.

‘It ruins school for kids’

Strunk, the Minnesota State researcher, said being secluded and restrained can affect kids long after the incident is over.

“It ruins school for kids…they're just done,” Strunk said. “There's no positive outlook on, ‘Oh, gosh, maybe I could get an AAA degree, or I could go to your two, four year college.’ I mean there's just not that because of such a negative school experience.”

Seclusion and restraint can also escalate the behaviors that teachers are trying to prevent, Strunk said. When students are secluded, Strunk said they are unable to process their emotions with anyone because they are isolated.

She said seclusion and restraint may even remind children of past trauma that they’ve experienced at home, like neglect.

“It's so frustrating. Because it's like treating our kids like they're animals, or they're not worthy to have a conversation with them,” Strunk said. “Like, let's process through this. Let's talk about it.”

Justyn described his time in a seclusion room as boring and lonely. Shay said her son rarely cries, but after talking about his experience with seclusion and restraint, she found him bawling in his room, asking why his teachers hated him and didn't treat him like other kids.

Missouri Rep. Ian Mackey, a Democrat from St. Louis, sponsored the original bill that required school districts to report incidents of seclusion and restraint. Lawmakers added an amendment to this year’s state budget that would expand upon that law.

The amendment would require DESE to review the data it collected and produce a report on what behavioral intervention tools are being used in school districts.

“There are some that work better than others, there are some that are being implemented better than others, and districts that are struggling in that space need support and help from the department and from districts that are succeeding,” Mackey said.

Mackey said he plans to file legislation next session to completely prohibit seclusion rooms in schools.

Many groups and experts say seclusion is never necessary and should be banned in schools. Florida banned the practice, and New York legislators considered a bill to do the same. A group of U.S. senators and representatives introduced legislation in May to end seclusion nationwide.

Mackey said he witnessed a seclusion in a Missouri school earlier this month.

“I'm not sure what part of that experience being in that room, other than just sheer exhaustion at some point, helped that child recenter,” Mackey said. “It was truly traumatic to see. It is not something any child should go through.”

Justyn, out of school since the seclusion episode when he broke his ankle, is learning from home with a tutor. Shay says she sees no point in meeting with the district because she feels they disregard her son’s safety. Justyn, for his part, wants to go back to school.

“Justyn says he wants to be around kids he can play with,” Shay said. “Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen for him right now, but that’s what he wants.”

She say wants to see more than just a law passed down.

“I want to see follow through. I want to know there are things that my disabled child is subjected to that a child who did not have autism would never have gone through, ever,” Jefferson said. “I've seen some out of control kids that are not on the spectrum. They don't go into safe rooms.”

Jodi Fortino