FCPS School Central Office Building

The Frederick County Public Schools central office

Speaking publicly for the first time after a federal investigation revealed widespread misuse of seclusion and restraint in Frederick County Public Schools, several school board members are expressing concern and calling for further inquiry.

The board member's comments, made at the tail end of Wednesday night's four-hour meeting, came one week after the Department of Justice announced it had settled with FCPS, finding the district “systematically and improperly” used physical restraint and seclusion tactics against students with disabilities.

“To those students who have had their years marked by trauma, and staff who have been marked by trauma, I hurt for you, and I’m sorry,” board member Jason Johnson said. “I was unaware, and that’s a bad thing.”

Seclusion, which is used disproportionately against special education students nationwide, means a student was locked in a room — sometimes no bigger than a closet — and left alone for an extended period of time.

The practice is legal only in situations where students or staff are at imminent risk of serious physical harm, but the DOJ found FCPS turned to it over and over in non-emergency scenarios, resulting in some students with disabilities missing weeks or even months of instructional time.

At the end of Wednesday's meeting — during which the DOJ investigation was referenced only briefly — board President Brad Young, Vice President Sue Johnson and members Jason Johnson, David Bass and Liz Barrett used part of their allotted comment period to address the matter.

Young, who was elected president Wednesday afternoon, acknowledged the district had “a lot of work to do” in special education. But he defended FCPS staff in his remarks, saying they were “good people” who were feeling “beaten up and demoralized” in the wake of the investigation.

“They were doing what the practices were. And right, wrong or indifferent, they were doing their jobs,” he said. “I think it is incumbent upon us as a board to give them the resources that they need. And they need vastly more resources.”

Barrett said she was unaware of the scope of the investigation, its findings and the fact that a settlement had been reached until she read about it in the News-Post.

“When I opened up the paper last week and learned about the settlement and the extent of the investigation, that was the moment where I thought — even after seven years on this board — I thought, ‘Good lord, how are we here?’” Barrett said. “And bottom line is, I am sorry that I was unaware. I am sorry that I was not able to help those children. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to help staff or give them the resources or tools to do their job effectively and safely.”

Barrett made calls for more independent investigation into the district. So did Bass, who specified he’d like to see an outside body examine FCPS special education practices outside the scope of the DOJ’s probe, which covered school years 2017-18, 2018-19 and half of 2019-20, before the pandemic.

Bass was the first board member to speak on the matter during the comment portion of the meeting, saying he was “disturbed” by the DOJ’s findings. Jay Mason and Karen Yoho, who had spoken ahead of him, didn’t mention the investigation.

Mason and Yoho stepped aside Wednesday from their positions of president and vice president, passing the reins to Young and Sue Johnson.

Community members clapped after Bass called on the board to implement a standing agenda item on the issue, ensuring members heard updates on special education at every meeting in 2022.

“We can applaud when there are changes,” Bass said in response.

Like her colleagues, Sue Johnson expressed concern about the findings and expressed support for another independent investigation. She said she was “going to be doing everything [she] can to understand the full nature of the problem.”

“I also want to make sure I’m on public record to say, if you look at the data, between 2017-18, 2018-19, and the first part of [2019-20] … there’s a significant decrease in the use of seclusion and restraint,” she said. “Like, significant.”

State data shows that while restraint incidents in FCPS dropped by about 7 percent between 2017-18 and 2018-19, seclusion incidents jumped by more than 90 percent during that period.

For both of those school years, FCPS led the state in incidents of seclusion and incidents of restraint by a significant margin, surpassing districts with much higher student populations.

In the first half of 2019-20, FCPS dropped to No. 5 in the state for restraint incidents and No. 3 for seclusions.

Data for the 2020-21 school year isn’t yet available.

“I’m trying to understand the whole picture,” Johnson said, “and how we got to where we were.”

Earlier Wednesday, then-board President Mason announced FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban was on administrative leave. Mike Markoe, Alban's deputy, is acting superintendent. 

Markoe didn't comment on the DOJ investigation or special education issues during Wednesday's meeting. 

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

Education reporter

Jillian Atelsek covers education for The Frederick News-Post. She grew up near Woodsboro, attended Walkersville High School and graduated from the University of Maryland in 2020 with degrees in journalism and history.

(24) comments

MD1756

Young said "“They were doing what the practices were. And right, wrong or indifferent, they were doing their jobs,” he said. “I think it is incumbent upon us as a board to give them the resources that they need. And they need vastly more resources.”" Well maybe they'd have the resources if the state legislature didn't pass the Kirwan plan without funding for it while still not properly funding existing pension requirements. This is a self inflicted problem by the state and locals and parents who want the government to raise their children at an early age.

DickD

I am glad Brad is back as Chair of the Committee. He will do a good job.

HappySeller2014

Actions, not words, from Brad will determine if I am glad as a parent. I hope he has some pink slips in his back pocket, ready to distribute.

HappySeller2014

Well, I appreciate the apologies from the FCPS School Board members. Good first step to acknowledge shortcomings and vow to do better. Not sure how this was so surprising to the Board members, but that is a discussion for another day. Wow, what a hiding job by the FCPS central office.

Now, focus must be placed on fixing this issue and ensuring it NEVER happens again.

First step is FCPS to rid itself of Alban and her deputy. In addition, research down the chain for wanton malfeasance and fire those involved, including heads of the special education department, etc. Time for some heads to roll for all the hell our FCPS schoolchildren have been going through last three years. And absolutely shameful and disgusting it was centered around a cohort of cognitively challenged children.

I have a feeling civil and possibly criminal lawsuits are in the developmental phase against FCPS from numerous sources. And, there we go...more Frederick County taxpayer dollars wasted to paying off settlements, fines, penalties. What a sickening waste! And lump in possible severance pay for those fired and more taxpayer dollars up in smoke.

FNP, any research yet on the type and extent of self harm that occurred per the DOJ settlement? Curious Frederick County citizens want to know. Any child hospital transports or visits? Any teachers injured?

vodalone

I think generally FCPS teachers are great, however some teachers, especially the special education ones lack basic training. We have a child in an IEP plan, and even though it's not due to a significant disability, the special education teachers seem to be undertrained and stretched thin on top of that.

rogy

Consider yourself lucky for having an actual Special Ed teacher in your child's classroom at all instead of a fill-in support staffer or a substitute (when they can even get those). It'll likely get worse before it gets better now that the students run the classrooms.

vodalone

To clarify the special ed teacher is not just for one classroom, she moves from class to class, maybe even between grades.

Plumbum

News story mentions that students missed weeks / months of instruction. I find this hard to believe, and would like to hear of specific cases of this happening, in detail. I believe students have missed classroom instruction, but to what extent? I’d be interested in hearing first hand accounts (from special needs staff)

cyntiast

What is definition of seclusion? A student going into a “quiet” room to calm themselves down? Need more details from the people on the “front lines”.

Decades ago when my mom was a bus driver and she had two students physically fighting on her bus, and she got up to move them apart from each other by *gasp* touching their shoulders, guess who got in trouble?

shiftless88

This is a result of parents continuing to physically discipline kids. Teachers cannot so kids don't listen. My parents taught us respect so no physical intervention was necessary for our punishment. Therefore teachers did not have to threaten me with physical harm for me to comply.

md1980

Ask any teacher in a school what the discipline is like and he/she will tell you that the discipline of students doesn't exist for the average student. Administrations don't want to act because these numbers have to be reported downtown. And downtown doesn't want the truth about these numbers. There are plenty of students who do not receive special education services who need to be excluded from the classroom whether for minutes or days so that teachers can teach.

Boomer631B

As with any DOJ reports these days I will wait until we see the data and the actual facts including the response from Alban and those who work that area. For the board members over the years not to have any insight onto the level of this seems a little suspect, but again must wait to see how this area is normally reported on to the board and how the board handle the data over the years. This is one tough area of education that most folks would not want to deal with on a daily basis so before any body jumps to conclusions let us wait for some more information to be shared.

threecents

So seclusion or restraint is only legal in emergency situations. If a student is yelling or banging on his desk or touching other students, for examples, and will not stop - those are not emergency situations. So you send them to the principal's office, but they won't go, and so on. Anyway, the settlement says we are no longer using isolation or restraint, so what is happening right now? The solution seems to remove those kids that cannot be legally dealt with in the classroom and send them home or have them institutionalized? Or will extra special ed teachers and aids be sufficient to keep them in line?

rogy

That “clunking” you hear is the sound of highly qualified, dedicated, experienced teachers throwing their belongings into boxes as they pack. Barely tolerable classrooms will now become impossible classrooms and they along with their best and brightest will head for the doors. (Perhaps they'll be forced to head to a county where a culture of underreporting problems makes their job survivable?)

DOJ's lawyers and BOE's elected should come to these classrooms and give teaching a try in this day and age. That’d be fun to watch! An added bonus would be seeing them stay late night after night to fill out the paperwork and call parents every time a kid spits on them or tells them to F-OFF!.

Any good statistics available on how many DOJ lawyers send/sent their own kids to public schools?

Dwasserba

[thumbup]rogy

threecents

[thumbup]Rogy

gabrielshorn2013

rogy! [thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Pro-Choice/Privileged W. Woman

Rogy...well put..and it sounds like you know what it's like. Perhaps can you tell us how the parents react when they get the phone call from the teacher? My imagination is running wild....as to what the parents response is when they get a phone from the teacher? Are they supportive of the teacher?

niceund

How can any member of the BOE NOT know anything about what was going on in the schools they represent? This matter is atrocious. Every member of the BOE who was serving at the time these incidents occurred should be shown the door along with Alban.

threecents

Yah, it looks like the board is firing Alban, but as for themselves, they are just apologizing.

DickD

I don't know how the Board would know, unless they are teachers or visit the classrooms and even then it would be necessary to go to the Special Education class rooms.

threecents

All the counties have been keeping records and sending them to the state, so I assume the BoE has had access to the records.

davediehl01

My thoughts exactly.

Dwasserba

How is an elected board expected to know everything about everything. Are they human?

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