Attorney Aaron Kinikini says he could not believe the story he was hearing from more than one parent in the Cache County School District.
“They’re doing what?” Kinikini remembers asking once the story began. Parents told Kinikini that teachers at a Cache County elementary school were assembling makeshift cells out of gym mats and keeping special needs children, as young as 5 years old, inside them.
Kinikini, who is a student rights attorney with the Disability Law Center, filed an administrative complaint that alleged children were pinned against a wall, fenced in by gym mats.
A school principal at this Cache County school allegedly told a mother that a child was inside the so-called box, trapped in mats for three-and-a-half hours. A witness also claimed he could hear, “a student crying from inside the tube, apparently in severe distress and struggling to escape.”
Cache County Special Education Director Joel Allred admits the use of mats appears to be a controversial technique, but it is actually a known method for working with students with behavioral issues.
“Behavior mats are something — it's a technique we use in some situations, not often, but it’s one of those techniques we use in behavior support,” Allred told our Beyond The Books investigative unit.
Allred says teachers used the mats only as a way to separate some kids from their peers but he denies children were completely enclosed inside them.
“That's the claim, but we don't do that,” is what Allred responded to questions about the complaint.
The Utah State Board of Education did conduct an investigations into the use of the mats to manage children with special needs.
Investigators say the district did not “violate” the children’s right to get an education, but they did say the district did “restrict movement of students,” and confirms nine of 11 para-educators reported seeing the mats used on students last year. Another parent claimed Allred told her personally that the box method was used at least once last year.
Beyond The Books Reporter Chris Jones asked Allred about the allegations made in the report.
- Chris Jones: They did (investigators) find that method was used on students.
- Joel Allred: Not putting students in a box, that is inaccurate.
- CJ: OK, what is accurate, What exactly did happen?
- JA: I would prefer not to talk about this because it is a confidential issue but using pads and supports is an option.
Allred’s department was also criticized by investigators for not having a district wide plan in place for what federal law requires called “Emergency Safety Interventions” Jones asked Allred about this as well.
- Chris Jones: “You didn't have a plan till this year.”
- Joel Allred: “Yeah, this was the first year that we've done that.”
- CJ: “But you should have had that right? According to the school board they want that in writing.”
- JA: “Yeah. That's why we did it”
- CJ: But up till this year you hadn’t had a written plan.
- JA: It was verbal.
- CJ: But, that’s not good enough is it?
- JA: Well, it was helpful.
Federal law allows teachers to use physical restraints like seclusion and restraint when a student presents an immediate danger to themselves or others, but Kinikini fears in Utah these methods are being used too often.