After CPS violated state law over physical restraint, district says it’s met training mandates. Parents and experts say more needs to be done.

Less than an hour after Chicago Public Schools disclosed its multiple violations of state law regarding the physical restraint of students in May, parents began responding with complaints.

“(M)y child has been hit by a cps teacher the principal and staff are aware ... nothing has been done please help,” wrote the first of several parents and guardians who emailed CPS over the summer regarding physical restraint and timeout procedures, known as PRTO.

In the emails, released to the Tribune by the Illinois State Board of Education, all individuals’ and school names are redacted. CPS didn’t comment on whether new PRTO investigations have been opened since May, directing the Tribune to file a records request.

Multiple parents claimed mistreatment of their children:

  • “My child was restrained … and in another incident my child arm was pulled on.”

  • “I am the parent of a CPS student whose rights has definitely been VIOLATED by the CPS STAFF. ... It’s about time that you took time to finally look into the abuse my child and others have had to endure.”

  • “My son was physical restrained on several occasions at (redacted) when he attended several years ago and I had written notice to NOT restrain him nor put their hands on him as this touching was against his (Individualized Education Program). They violated this and because of this he refused school for several years and needed intense therapy. Was (redacted) investigated for this? This was extremely serious but no one listened.”

Other parents and guardians wrote to ask whether a violation occurred at their child’s school. Teachers emailed to correct their certification status. And principals expressed confusion regarding the annual training requirements ISBE mandated the district to meet.

By the first day of school last month, the district announced its “full compliance” with PRTO training requirements, meeting the minimum of two trained staff members per district-managed school.

And — after raising the specter in April of placing the district on probation — State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders commended CPS for “training staff at every school in the safe and appropriate use of restraint and time out,” which must be limited to the “rare situation” when a student’s behavior puts them or others in imminent danger. (Incidents had occurred at at least 77 schools between the fall of 2021 and December 2022, records show.)

Yet at least two ISBE investigations of improper physical restraint of CPS students remain ongoing — involving an April supine restraint and an unspecified incident at an elementary school. And, with additional corrective actions mandated by the state agency, addressing the use of restraint in CPS will require more than training.

Experts who spoke to the Tribune on best practices emphasized the need for strong baseline student support systems and, for students with a history of difficulties, prevention plans that can preempt the need for restraint — given the profound impact on students who experience or witness incidents.

Some parents have also expressed concern that two trained staff members per school isn’t enough.

“Buildings are big. And these things go from zero to 60 in seconds,” said Debora Land, a parent of a diverse learner at Jones College Prep. As a Local School Council member, she reported an improper physical restraint allegation, involving a special education student “slammed to the ground as if he’s being arrested,” to CPS on behalf of another parent in 2022.

“Even if a trained adult shows up later, what kind of trauma are we inflicting on our students?” Land said, adding that she’d like to see basic training of all adults in a school building.

CPS said it’s working toward ensuring that all school-based teachers, counselors, deans, principals, assistant principals, special education classroom assistants and social workers are trained in timeout procedures by the end of the first quarter of the school year.

CPS “works continuously to create welcoming and safe learning environments and the use of physical restraint is a last resort and shall be used only when a student’s behavior presents an imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or others and other less restrictive and intrusive measures have been tried and proven ineffective,” a spokesperson wrote.

The district said the 16-hour trainings conducted over summer encompassed de-escalation and proper techniques for physical restraint, including identifying signs of distress during PRTO.

George Sugai, a professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut School of Education who testified before Congress in 2019 on the adverse impact of PRTO on students’ ability to form positive relationships, told the Tribune via email: If a situation has escalated to the point a physical restraint must occur to prevent injury, “we have failed to give the student/child a better way of behaving/communicating, especially in situations where we know the student/child has difficulty.”

The consequences can be long-lasting, said the associate dean of Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education, Pamela Fenning, a school psychology professor and licensed clinical psychologist.

“We don’t know what trauma history that student has had when they’ve been touched in that way,” she said. “We don’t know, when students are observing, the triggers they might be experiencing.”

Preventing a student from running into a street would be an example of necessity, Fenning said, but the use of physical restraint gives students the wrong message, on conflict resolution and on their personal safety at school: “‘I’m not welcome here and there is force to respond to me,’ versus ‘I’m going to have a relationship that’s going to be strong. I’m going to understand social-emotionally, how to solve conflict.’”

Best practices

As a next step, the district said in its training compliance announcement that the Board of Education’s Special Education Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting in August, will focus on improving services to families and transforming the culture of the district’s Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services.

Following a complaint two CPS parents filed with ISBE in 2022, the state agency ordered CPS to follow state law requiring school boards to establish and maintain a committee to develop behavioral intervention policies for students with disabilities.

In a PRTO Monitoring Plan as of May 17, released to the Tribune by ISBE, CPS said the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services would convene an RTO Reduction Committee in May to meet monthly. A spokesperson said that’s occurred — but didn’t provide comment regarding when meeting outcomes will be provided publicly.

“Monthly RTO Meeting Outcomes/minutes/next steps will be available to all stakeholders via PRTO website, and other parent communication forum (i.e. FAB),” the monitoring plan states. No minutes were available on the PRTO site as of Wednesday and the Office of Diverse Learner’s Family Advisory Board hasn’t met since November 2022.

PRTO incidents aren’t limited to students with diagnosed disabilities, though. “Sometimes we do conflate having a special education label or a disability and situations where behaviors may escalate, resulting in reactions we don’t want in schools,” said Fenning.

She said it’s important to ask: “‘What’s going on in the context, environmentally, that may be prompting this reaction?’ That may or may not be a student with a disability.” Fenning said an estimated 20% of students experience a mental health challenge that could require intervention. Disabilities can also readily go undiagnosed in under-resourced communities.

A strong universal support system, which entails identifying and supporting students who are going through difficult patches, can go a long way in reducing PRTO incidents, she said. As an example, Fenning said that when a student who’s obviously had a rough time walks in, they may have been triggered, or something could have happened in their neighborhood, before they even commuted to school.

“We get frustrated taking buses and trains, let alone a student who spent two hours,” Fenning said. “We make sure they’ve had breakfast that day. We give them a little downtime. We give them a little space.

“Our systems and schools are based on very punitive practices, and I would put restraint and seclusion under that. However, there’s a degree to which we can prevent our problems by just having safe, inclusive, welcoming spaces.”

For students with a history of emotional or behavioral difficulties in need more individualized support, Sugai said written behavior prevention and intervention plans must be in place, to identify triggers preceding a student’s challenging behavior; teach the student to self-manage; and, often, require adults to adjust their reactions.

In other words, said Sugai, “catch it before it happens by knowing and rearranging the conditions.”

CPS does have an office dedicated to providing the type of support Fenning described. But, based on available data, Behavior Intervention Plans may not be in broad use.

Of nearly 57,000 students with an IEP in August 2021, around 3,000 had a BIP, according to data included in the 2022 complaint submitted to ISBE, which catalyzed the state agency’s investigation of CPS. The number of students who did not have an IEP but had a BIP wasn’t included. And whether the RTO reduction committee has developed criteria regarding the creation of behavior plans, per state law, is unclear.

Miriam Bhimani is one of the parents who filed the initial complaint to ISBE, after her daughter was unsettled when she heard a teacher threaten another student with the potential intervention of a school security officer. Bhimani said behavior plans are unpredictably administered across the district and that she fears not everyone involved in them is trained.

All individuals who interact with the student must be trained — and work as a unified team, said Sugai. “Escalating behaviors typically do not occur in isolation,” he said. “They usually occur in an interaction.”

Incidents captured on video — most recently in January at Roosevelt High School, ABC7 reported — have shown adults escalating situations with students by force, noted Land, the Jones parent who reported a restraint last year.

A month after Land filed her complaint, the principal of Jones at the time wrote parents that a staff member who allegedly engaged improperly with a student had been removed during an investigation. Land said she hasn’t heard from CPS regarding the status or outcome of the investigation since.

“Sometimes the improper restraints are not of (special education) students. ... These are general education students that get into a fight with some security officer,” she said. “How can we do a better job of preparing the adults in the building, who are supposed to be the grown-ups? How do we identify which adults in our school communities have had issues with that and do we still really want them to be part of that student-facing population of adults in the building?”

CPS said its PRTO training encompasses implicit bias and restorative and trauma-informed practices in addition to de-escalation and physical management. With annual certifications expiring on a rolling basis, CPS is to continue holding trainings quarterly, documents provided by ISBE show.

System change takes time and resources

People go into education with the best intentions, said Fenning. But with 5% of teachers leaving the field, she said, educators are under more stress than ever and school psychologists are also stretched thin, particularly with the demand for services exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A special education teacher told the Tribune it can be nearly impossible to convene a group of peers to collaborate on a behavior plan as Sugai described.

New leadership of the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services could make a difference in ensuring schools have necessary resources, said Stephanie Anderson, principal of Vaughn Occupational High School, at the inaugural Special Education Advisory Committee.

Following CPS’ disclosure of its PRTO violations in May, Stephanie Jones, the previous chief of the office, resigned, receiving a 70-day severance payment and benefits through August, according to an agreement obtained by the Tribune. She has yet to be replaced.

“Any school that might not be doing right by kids with disabilities right now, it’s not because they don’t want to be,” Anderson said. “It’s because they don’t know how or they don’t have the right supports or they don’t have a coach that knows how to teach that teacher or that (special education classroom assistant) or that bus aide or that principal what they should be doing with that complex child in front of them, who should be receiving very individualized supports and planning. I do not think it is for lack of trying.”

System change also takes time — and funding, Fenning said. CPS currently receives only a quarter of the aid that the state determines it needs, resulting in a $1.4 billion gap, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at the March Board of Education meeting.

“Many of these mandates are unfunded mandates,” she said of policies that require all available and appropriate interventions to be applied prior to the use of restraint. “I believe in them wholeheartedly. I support them, but it’s an unfunded mandate. To change a whole system is really to change an entire mindset. When there isn’t the support present, it’s very difficult to change those systems.”

The Tribune’s Alice Yin contributed.