Restraint Data from Billerica Schools Not Forwarded to State

November 11, 2018

BILLERICA -- Public information on student restraint in Billerica Public Schools does not appear in the state’s online database for the 2016-17 school year, but it doesn’t mean local officials weren’t keeping track.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Billerica reported zero restraints during the first required year of record-keeping and may have been among a number of schools that incorrectly filed the information.

Records shared by Superintendent Tim Piwowar with the Billerica School Committee in early October -- which were later forwarded to The Sun upon request -- indicate nine students were restrained a total of 448 times at Vining Elementary School during the 2016-17 school year. Students or staff were injured nine times.

At Ditson Elementary School, seven students were restrained a total of 41 times, according to the data included in an email received from Piwowar.

When asked if the district submitted the restraints to the state, Piwowar said, “we submitted what we submitted.”

“I don’t know what happened along the way,” he said, adding the state has not asked the district to submit the data in the months since the deadline.

DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis said the district reported no restraints during the first year of reporting, following a change to state law requiring districts to track and share this data.

Reis said Billerica was not alone in underreporting. Though she did not have an exact number of districts that submitted incorrectly, she said some appear to have missed the section on an electronic form provided by the state for reporting restraints.

“When you first start collecting new data there are misunderstandings,” Reis said.

According to Reis, the state has not tried to update the data from the 2016-17 school year and instead concentrated in improving the accuracy for subsequent years.

She said the form for the second period of reporting, the 2017-18 school year, made the section for reporting restraints more obvious.

During the first year of reporting, she said some districts also had trouble determining what counts as a restraint.

Piwowar declined to speak about the restraints data, but upon request forwarded an email on the topic he sent to the School Committee. In this email, he offered explanations for the number of restraints in the 2016-17 school year, including recording errors.

“As a district, if anything, we over-reported restraints, particularly as it related to student escorts,” he wrote.

Of the 448 restraints recorded at Vining Elementary School, 301 were escorts, he wrote. Depending on the method and force used, not all of these escorts should have been counted as restraints, according to Piwowar.

Reis mentioned the difference between escorts and restraints as a source of confusion among districts. She said the state has also noticed some instances of double reporting of restraints when more than one supervisor is in the room.

Piwowar wrote the number of restraints recorded at a school is distinct from the total number of incidents.

“As we have reported our data, if a student is held for a minute, released, and then immediately escalates and needs to be held again a minute later, it is reported as two separate restraints,” he wrote. “In some cases, this means we may have as many as four reported restraints within a five-minute-span, or twelve reported restraints within an hour.”

After talking with other administrators, he wrote the way consecutive restraints are recorded is inconsistent across the state and cautioned against comparisons.

Piwowar said the number of restraints reduced by more than half from the first year of reporting to the second, which covers 2017-18.

The restraints data has been a source of tension among some Billerica School Committee members who questioned why it was not listed on the state’s website or made available earlier.

Piwowar sent the data to the School Committee following a discussion at a Sept. 24 meeting.

“In addition, I would also caution about this data and topic in general,” Piwowar wrote to the School Committee. “Behind each one of these reported restraints is a child who was/is in crisis, and our staff only administers restraint as a last resort. And it is heartbreaking to hear the stories about what these children are going through, and how hard our staff is working to try to meet their needs.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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