Pensacola, Florida
Saturday June 23rd 2018


The Ripple Effect

Lobbying for Florida’s Special Needs Students

By Paul F. South

Pat Young believes that like a pebble in a pond, certain incidents in life—even the tragedies—can have far-reaching effects for good.

After an incident at a Virginia school in 2011 left her grandson Carson Luke physically and emotionally broken and battered, the Pensacola resident and president of ARC Gateway set out to make sure what happened to Carson won’t happen to any child in Florida.

Carson, a thin, tow-headed boy weighing less than 100 pounds, is autistic, and sometimes suffers outbursts or “rages.” They are torrents of temper, peppered with profanity. When he calms, his body is spent.

“It’s not out of anger toward someone because they want to hurt people or they’re mad,” Young said. “It’s something they have to learn to control because they’re frustrated. If they think someone’s making fun of them or someone tells a joke they don’t understand, they get frustrated.”

Carson, then a third-grade student, was dragged down a hall and into a seclusion room. It was not his first time in the room, located in one of the school district’s oldest, dirtiest buildings. The boy resisted. A door was slammed on his left hand, shattering a bone and leaving gaping wounds.

“When [his mother] sees him, he’s holding his arm and he’s limping,” Young said. “Carson is very verbal, which is unusual, but he couldn’t tell her anything. It was like he was in shock.”

When school officials told her that the injuries occurred while he was being taken to a “seclusion room,” it was the first time Heather Luke had heard the term. On past occasions, it had been called a “quiet room,” which had given the mother an impression the area was a safe place managed by staff trained to help her son calm down.

There was nothing therapeutic about the room—which she compared to something you might see in a documentary on Russian prisons.

“It’s like something you’d envision in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” referring to the Ken Kesey novel. “I’d seen the room, but when I’d seen it, the door was always open and there was never anybody in it. I assumed it was a throwback to whenever. But unfortunately, that was not the case.”

Carson was hospitalized, had surgery on his left hand. His right foot was also badly injured, with a break near a growth plate. He was in casts for his foot and hand for about six weeks.

Progressive Approach

Florida is seen as being ahead of other states on this issue, according to Young, but allegations of abuse of special needs students have surfaced. Earlier this year, a Clearwater area teacher was accused of hitting a 6-year-old girl with a book, pulling her hair, kicking her and tying her hands with duct tape.

The same teacher was charged with pushing down an eight-year-old boy and using a rubber band to bind his hands. The incidents were one of a number in the Tampa area of the state, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Escambia County hasn’t had these types of incidents. A difference is Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, who has spent 36 years in education, mostly in educating special needs children.

“It’s where my heart lies,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been the guy who’s wanted to help those who couldn’t help themselves. We’re going to protect them because often they can’t protect themselves.”

However, he added that prohibiting the use of restraints or seclusion rooms isn’t practical.

“That’s a noble goal for us to have and our goal is to get it to the lowest possible level,” he said. “But I just know because I’ve been in special education and because of the impairment of a student, that to protect that child or protect another child we will have to restrain them momentarily to stop the behavior and get them back on track.”

Last month, Young and a number of community leaders met with Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Senate President Don Gaetz to discuss a number of issues, including legislation aimed at further regulating the use of seclusion rooms and restraints in disciplining students. Young wanted them to consider expanding the law covering special needs students to require all Florida teachers to be trained in the use of proper physical restraints and seclusion rooms.

“The logic behind my idea is that what if that one teacher who is trained is out sick that day. What if it is an emergency situation and they can’t get to the classroom? What kind of harm would come from that?” Young said. “Train ‘em all. If you give them a three-year window, I think that’s fair.”

She has met with members of the local legislative delegation and will lobby other Florida lawmakers this fall on her training proposal.

“They’re all aware of it. They all told me that they supported what I felt,” Young said.

She will also make a pitch to disability rights advocacy groups in Florida, who are open to the proposal.

Sylvia Smith, director of legislative and public affairs for Disability Rights Florida, would like to see an outright prohibition of the use of mechanical and prone restraints in disciplining not just special needs students, but all schoolchildren.

Her organization is anxiously awaiting restraint and seclusion data for the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’re hoping to be impressed that districts have taken their responsibilities seriously,” Smith said. “If they haven’t, we will join all advocates in going to the Legislature with that data and dialoging on what would be that logical next step.”

Deborah Linton, executive director of ARC Gateway of Florida, reacted positively to Young’s proposal.

“We haven’t seen a specific bill at this point, but I will tell you that our organization statewide would be supportive of the idea of having positive behavioral supports implemented, to have people trained and have it implemented in all the school systems,” said Linton. “I would like to see every teacher get a primer in it.”

Nightmares Continue

While Carson Luke’s physical injuries have healed, the psychological wreckage remains. Nightmares are common.

His mother said, “He would tell me, ‘Monsters are chasing me down the hall,’ or ‘I’m running down the hall and I can’t get to you.’”

In the months since, the Lukes have moved to Maryland. Carson attends the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which specializes in educating kids with brain disorders like autism. There are no seclusion rooms.

In those moments when he feels an outburst coming on, he can place himself in a self-imposed “time-out.” Early in the school year he would be escorted to the quiet area by two staff members. He has not needed such an escort since last October. His episodes are becoming less frequent.

“His confidence is through the roof,” Luke said. “He’s a different kid.”

On the whole for the Luke family of Maryland, things are looking brighter, things, too are looking brighter for the disabled in Florida.

“More and more, we are having legislators coming into the fold who have someone in their families with some type of disability,” said Young said, who gave Gov. Scott high marks for increased funding for services for the disabled.

Family members and friends from across the country were impacted by what happened to her grandson. The ripple effect never ends. Pat Young wants people to understand one thing about Carson.

“He’s just a child that has a minor disability of misunderstanding,” Young said. “And he shouldn’t be treated like a monster.”