ALBUQUERQUE — When Urijah Salazar arrived home from school on March 1, his mother immediately saw that something was off. A fourth-grade special education student at Montezuma Elementary, Urijah often came home from school upset, but on this day he seemed particularly rattled — shaking mad, detached, almost in a state of shock.
Nadia McGilbert drew a bath to help him relax, and as soon as he stepped into the tub she saw the injuries: a deep, avocado-shaped bruise on his forearm, scratches, apparently from sharp fingernails, on both arms.
“Oh my God,” she sputtered. “Is this what they did to you at school?”
Urijah nodded and said it hurt to breathe. McGilbert shut off the bath, told him to get dressed, and grabbed her car keys.
At UNM Hospital’s emergency room, doctors confirmed her worst suspicions. According to their discharge notes, Urijah’s injuries were sustained when teachers placed him in a “team control position” — a technique in which two adults pull a child’s arms backward and force the head toward the ground.
“You couldn’t imagine the pain,” said Urijah, 10, struggling for the right words. “Like, it feels like you’re being pulled apart.”
Less than a week later, Urijah repeated the behavior he had already exhibited countless times earlier — he tried to leave the classroom and go home without permission. And once again, Montezuma teachers restrained and secluded him in a room.
Such instances of restraint and seclusion are supposed to be rare, but it was at least the 150th time Urijah had been placed in a hold by school teachers in less than four years, according to a Searchlight analysis of his education records.
Often referred to within Albuquerque Public Schools as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a controversial and highly dangerous method of behavior management that frequently leads to injury of both students and school staff. Under state law, it is allowed only in extreme circumstances — when a child poses an immediate physical threat to himself or others. Yet in APS, restraint and seclusion are used to manage the behavior of difficult students on a near daily basis.
As court documents reveal, students in the district have been forced into seclusion rooms, or so-called “calm down” spaces, that are not only unventilated but, in some cases, so small as to violate state safety standards. Attorneys interviewed for this story say they have seen walls of seclusion rooms smeared with blood and mucus, apparently from children confined there in a panic.
Hundreds of deaths from restraint have been documented in schools, psychiatric facilities, residential homes and other settings across the country, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the National Disability Rights Network and others. When death occurs, it’s typically from a type of suffocation called “restraint-related positional asphyxia.”
When used on a child in the midst of a mental health crisis, the practice can spark long-term, traumatic effects — even when no physical injury occurs.
School data indicates that there have been at least 4,600 cases of restraint since 2014, and teachers interviewed by Searchlight say that number is certainly an undercount because many incidents are never entered into the system.
APS, meanwhile, has shrouded its use of restraint and seclusion in secrecy, refusing to release records to parents, attorneys, and the media. The practice is often carried out without legally required documentation, leaving parents — as well as state and federal oversight agencies — in the dark.
In its reporting to the federal government, APS has consistently — and falsely — denied that it uses restraint at all.
APS superintendent Raquel Reedy, special education associate superintendent Lucinda Sanchez, compliance director Cindy Soo Hoo, and Lila Ramirez, who oversees APS’s behavior tracking system, all declined to comment.
In order to report this story, Searchlight spoke with dozens of parents, as well as teachers, educational assistants, students and attorneys. Searchlight also reviewed more than 5,000 pages of educational and legal records, and filed multiple public records requests with APS.
Acts of desperation
Parents kept in the dark
“I was in shock,” Bateman-Twocrow recalled, her voice quivering. “There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing your child being restrained by a group of grown men.”
A psychiatrist diagnosed Arnold with PTSD following the restraints, she said. In April 2019, at Searchlight’s suggestion, his mother sent a written request to APS for all documentation of her son’s restraint and seclusion. She said her request was ignored.
Gabrielle Heisey, whose 14-year-old son Raymond has been routinely restrained and secluded at numerous APS schools for autism-related behaviors — including, according to school documents obtained by her attorney, for such minor infractions as refusing to get off the bus or breaking his own glasses in frustration — was likewise not given documentation by school staff. Sometimes, Heisey said she learned about the incidents only after finding finger-shaped bruises on Raymond’s arms. APS did not respond to Heisey’s requests for her son’s records, she said.
In the course of this investigation, Searchlight worked with 20 parents to request documentation of their children’s restraint and seclusion in Albuquerque schools. Despite the fact that parents have a legal right to inspect their children’s education records, all 20 of those parents said their requests went unfulfilled. Over the years, when pressed in court and in administrative hearings, district officials have maintained that collecting data on restraint and seclusion would be too labor intensive.
“Gathering information… as to all uses of physical management … would require contact between district staff and each and every school. This task would require the attention of district staff for several weeks,” testified Cindy Soo Hoo, the APS compliance director, in a 2015 affidavit.
“They have never invested in trying to really understand the harmfulness of restraint, or how would we could avoid using it,” said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque attorney who represents dozens of families of students with disabilities.
Perhaps most critically, APS has repeatedly filed misleading reports with the federal government.
A pattern of lax record-keeping
Like all school districts, APS is required to report every instance of restraint and seclusion to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) division. But for the past 10 years, district leadership has claimed no incidents of restraint in any of APS’s 143 schools, CRDC data shows. The same data show that there have been just five cases of seclusion reported since 2009, only one of which involved a student with disabilities.
In submitting that data, APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy or an authorized designate must certify the numbers as “true and correct.”
Andy Gutierrez, senior director of APS’s Student Information Systems, confirmed that the district again claimed no instances for the 2017-’18 school year, the most recent year for which reporting was required.
“The Albuquerque Public Schools district … does not use this form of discipline disposition in our schools or programs and there is no discipline code for restraint or seclusion in our Student Information System (SIS),” Gutierrez wrote in an email to Searchlight on May 10. “Since this discipline data does not exist in our SIS we do not report it as part of our CRDC or State Reporting data submissions.”
A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that APS is not alone in misrepresenting its use of restraint and seclusion to the Department of Education. That report, published in June, found that districts across the country vastly underreport their use of the controversial techniques, raising questions about the pervasiveness of restraint and seclusion as a discipline tool and making it difficult for the federal government to enforce civil rights protections.
The GAO found that, during the 2015-’16 school year, 70 percent of districts nationally — and 84 percent of school districts in New Mexico — reported zero incidents, a number that the agency called out as evidence of a “pervasive pattern of underreporting of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.”
Parents have reported to Searchlight that their children were restrained and secluded at schools in Alamogordo, Española, Grants, Los Lunas, Pecos, Las Cruces and Estancia — all districts that claimed zero instances in reports to the federal government.
“This issue is important because inappropriately applied, restraint and seclusion can and has resulted in serious injury or death to children … our grave concern with this data is that we don’t really know” what’s going on inside classrooms in Albuquerque and elsewhere, said Jackie Nowicki, director of the GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security team.
Permanent state of emergency
Hours before McGilbert rushed Urijah to the emergency room last March, the fourth grader had been playing a computer game in his Social-Emotional Support Services classroom, a special education program at Montezuma for kids with persistent behavior problems. It had been a particularly tough year for Urijah, and his nerves were frayed from the near-constant restraint holds staff had placed him in.
When told to stop playing the game and return to his assignment, he became aggressive, hitting and kicking, according to school documents. Two adults grabbed him, held him in a team control position for 25 minutes — bruising and scratching his arms in the process — and then secluded him for 70 minutes.
Special education advocates say that restraining or secluding a child for behavior like Urijah’s — that is, behavior that is predictable and consistent — is not only irresponsible but also illegal, since restraint and seclusion are allowed only in emergency situations. Child psychologists and psychiatrists are adamant that the research uniformly shows damage from restraint and seclusion. Instead of “calming” students down, it makes them more likely to act out aggressively in the future, plunging classrooms into a cycle of outburst and restraint.
“There might be a rare emergency circumstance where restraint could be necessary,” said George Davis, former director of psychiatry for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. “But if the same emergency happens over and over again, it’s just not an emergency — it’s poor planning, and it’s a failure to respond to the kid’s needs. The fact that it continues to be standard operating procedure is beyond negligent.”
For years, teachers in APS have complained that they are frequently so overwhelmed that they are unable to respond to such behaviors in productive ways. In 2018, Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, voiced these concerns in an ATF publication devoted to what the organization termed a “crisis in the classroom:”
“For some time now, teachers, especially in kindergarten and first grade, have been seeking help from their union because they have students in crisis in their classrooms. … Frustrated with the lack of systemic support, they call — sometimes crying; often ready to quit; always in desperation — because when kids are in crisis, teachers are in crisis.”
With special education classrooms overcrowded and understaffed, many teachers report that they are left unprepared to deal with chaotic and even dangerous situations. Special education teachers, in short supply statewide, made up 36 percent of all educator vacancies in 2018, according to a report from New Mexico State University. Many special education teachers hold only an entry-level license, which provides minimal on-the-ground experience with disabilities and related behaviors.
Teachers and educational assistants describe the district as taking an indifferent approach to discipline issues, with schools having to craft their own procedures for responding to difficult behaviors without guidance from the superintendent. In fact, all teachers interviewed for this story said they were never informed of the 2017 state law or the guidelines it sets on the use of restraint and seclusion.
“It can be just overwhelming, and there’s been no guidance from the district on how to deal with these situations,” said one special education teacher who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “So when a student is being disruptive, sometimes people think the easiest thing to do is have a [crisis] team come deal with it. When that happens, everybody ends up escalated — the teachers, the other students, everybody.”
In APS administrative hearings, teachers have publicly reported having nightmares, anxiety and PTSD following incidents of restraint and seclusion. Some have suffered broken bones and concussions while trying to restrain children, according to interviews, incident reports and hearing transcripts obtained by Searchlight.
“Can you imagine how hard it is to manage your own adrenaline while restraining a child who is in the middle of a crisis?” asked Sonya Romero-Smith, who teaches both special education and general education kindergartners at Lew Wallace Elementary in downtown Albuquerque. “I’ve lost sleep over this. No teacher wants to be in a position where they might hurt a child. This is not what I signed up to do.”
And because federal law requires that special education students be schooled in the least restrictive environments, teachers say incidents of restraint and seclusion are increasingly occurring in general education classrooms.
“We’re not fixing any of the root causes of these behaviors,” said Romero-Smith. “We’re just triaging. We need support from the district to be able to implement some real solutions.”
On that point, parents and teachers agree. And just as overwhelmed teachers are leaving APS’s special education system in droves, so too are parents removing their kids from the district — sometimes homeschooling out of desperation, sometimes leaving the state altogether.
As Urijah Salazar nears the end of his time in elementary school, his mother isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She’s worried about the transition to sixth grade, given the deep mistrust of school staff that Urijah has developed after years of restraint and seclusion.
“He doesn’t trust anyone at school, and why should he?” McGilbert said. “It’s been trauma after trauma. He’s never had the chance to just be a kid.”