ALBUQUERQUE – When Urijah Salazar arrived home from school on March 1, his mother immediately saw that something was off.
A fourth grade special education student at Montezuma Elementary, Urijah often came home from school upset, but on this day he seemed particularly rattled – shaking mad, detached, almost in a state of shock.
His mother, Nadia McGilbert, drew a bath to help him relax, and as soon as he stepped into the tub she discovered his injuries: an avocado-shaped bruise on his forearm and scratches, apparently from sharp fingernails, on both arms.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “Is this what they did to you at school?”
Urijah nodded and said it hurt to breathe. McGilbert shut off the bath, told him to get dressed, and grabbed her car keys.
At the University of New Mexico Hospital’s emergency room, doctors confirmed her worst suspicions. According to their discharge notes, Urijah’s injuries were suffered when teachers placed him in a “team control position” – a technique in which two adults pull a child’s arms behind his or her torso and force the head toward the ground.
“You couldn’t imagine the pain,” Urijah said. “Like, it feels like you’re being pulled apart.”
Less than a week later, Urijah repeated the behavior he had exhibited countless times earlier – he tried to leave the classroom and go home without permission. And once again, Montezuma teachers restrained and secluded him in a room. It was at least the 150th time he had been placed in a hold by teachers in less than four years, according to a Searchlight New Mexico analysis of his education records. Such instances of restraint and seclusion are supposed to be rare.
Often referred to as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a controversial method of behavior management that can lead to injury of both students and school staffers.
In 2017, New Mexico joined 29 other states in passing a law setting tight limits on the use of restraint and seclusion, which allows its use only in extreme circumstances – when children pose an immediate physical threat to themselves or others.
The law put strict reporting requirements on schools, mandating that parents be immediately notified of any incident. But a 10-month investigation by Searchlight has revealed that it’s still widely used to manage special education students, and parents are often left in the dark.
Court documents show that APS students have been forced into seclusion rooms, or “calm-down” spaces, that are not only unventilated but, in some cases, so small as to violate state safety standards. Attorneys interviewed for this story say they have seen walls of such rooms smeared with blood and mucus, apparently from confined children.
School data indicates there have been at least 4,600 cases of restraint since 2014, and teachers interviewed by Searchlight say the number is certainly an undercount because many incidents are never entered into the system.
APS, meanwhile, has shrouded its use of restraint and seclusion in secrecy, refusing to release records to parents, attorneys and the media. In its reporting to the federal government, APS has consistently – and falsely – denied it uses restraint at all.
Superintendent Raquel Reedy; Lucinda Sanchez, associate superintendent for special education; compliance director Cindy Soo Hoo; and Lila Ramirez, who oversees APS’s behavior tracking system, all declined to comment.
To report this story, Searchlight spoke with dozens of parents, as well as teachers, educational assistants, students and attorneys. Searchlight also reviewed more than 5,000 pages of educational and legal records, and filed multiple public records requests with APS. The 5,000 pages are mostly from 2016-2019, but some date back to 2002.
Amid staff shortages, inadequate training, and a lack of clear guidance from APS leadership, teachers often use restraint and seclusion as a first response to moderate, non-threatening misbehavior such as “inappropriate verbalizations” and property destruction, according to education and legal records.
National data shows students with disabilities make up 70% of restraint and seclusion cases. Disproportionately, they are African American, or – like Urijah Salazar – Native American.
The NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and 56 other legal and social justice organizations have all called for a federal ban on the practice in public schools.
Yet school superintendents and administrators who defend restraint and seclusion of special education students say the techniques are necessary to manage behavior.
“We believe the use of seclusion and restraint has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioral conditions to be educated not only within our public schools, but also in the least restrictive and safest environments possible,” the American Association of School Administrators said in a 2012 position paper titled “Keeping Schools Safe: How Seclusion and Restraint Protects Students and School Personnel.”
According to numerous lawyers, teachers and parents interviewed by Searchlight, every APS school is supposed to have its own restraint team. The “physical crisis team,” as it’s usually known, consists of teachers and other staffers who have received training from the Crisis Prevention Institute, a private Milwaukee-based company.
Urijah’s first restraint by a school crisis team happened in October 2015 at Arroyo del Oso Elementary, two months into his first-grade year. Diagnosed with developmental delay, sensory processing disorder, receptive and expressive language disorder and emotional disturbance, he had been growing increasingly overwhelmed in class and tried repeatedly to flee school.
Intercepted by staff, he began kicking and swinging his arms in protest – which is when, according to teacher notes, the school’s behavior management specialist placed the then-6-year-old in a restraint hold.
Before the school year was over, he had been suspended four times and restrained at least seven more. In March, Arroyo del Oso’s principal told his mother that the school could no longer handle her son.
APS transferred Urijah to Governor Bent Elementary School, where he was restrained by teachers on his first day of class, according to records provided to Searchlight by his mother. Staffers restrained him at least 18 more times in a little more than two months, before administrators told McGilbert they would be transferring Urijah to yet another school, Montezuma Elementary, which has a program for children with disability-related behavior problems.
Montezuma accounted for 80% of restraints of elementary school children during the 2015-16 school year, according to a Searchlight analysis of district data obtained by Pegasus Legal Services, a nonprofit Albuquerque children’s law firm. APS did not fulfill public records requests for more recent school-level data.
By the end of Urijah’s first year at Montezuma, staffers had restrained him more than 100 times. On many such occasions, McGilbert said, she received no notification from the school. Nor, she added, did staffers ever meet with her to plan a way for avoiding future restraints – even after a 2017 law went into effect requiring such meetings.
“My stomach was in knots every morning,” McGilbert said. “I could barely walk to the car to drive him to school, because I didn’t know if he would get hurt in class again.”
In more than 50 interviews conducted for this story, other parents echoed McGilbert’s frustration.
Sarah Bateman-Twocrow, whose 8-year-old son, Arnold, was restrained “almost daily” at Montezuma and other schools, according to his individualized education plan, has tried for years to get comprehensive documentation from the district.
Often, she said, Arnold would come home with bruises on his arms, unable to articulate what had caused them. On one occasion, she arrived at school to pick him up and saw him being pinned to the ground by three adults, she said.
“I was in shock,” Bateman-Twocrow said. “There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing your child being restrained by a group of grown men.”
In the course of this investigation, Searchlight worked with 20 parents to request documentation of their children’s restraint and seclusion in Albuquerque schools. Although parents have a legal right to inspect their children’s education records, all 20 of those parents said their requests went unfulfilled.
APS also did not respond to Searchlight’s questions about the parents’ requests. Over the years, when pressed in court and in administrative hearings, district officials have maintained that collecting data on restraint and seclusion would be too labor-intensive.
APS is required to report every instance of restraint and seclusion to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, or CRDC, division. But for the past 10 years, district leadership has claimed no incidents of restraint in any of APS’ 143 schools, CRDC data shows. That same data claims that there have been only five cases of seclusion since 2009, only one of which involved a student with disabilities.
Andy Gutierrez, senior director of APS Student Information Systems, confirmed that the district again claimed no instances for the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent year for which reporting was required.
“The Albuquerque Public Schools district … does not use this form of discipline disposition in our schools or programs and there is no discipline code for restraint or seclusion in our Student Information System,” Gutierrez wrote in a May 10 email to Searchlight.
Because federal law requires special education students to be schooled in the least restrictive environment, teachers say, incidents of restraint and seclusion increasingly occur in general education classrooms.
“We’re not fixing any of the root causes of these behaviors,” said Sonya Romero-Smith, who teaches both special education and general education kindergartners at Lew Wallace Elementary in Downtown Albuquerque. “We’re just triaging. We need support from the district to be able to implement some real solutions.”
On that point, parents and teachers agree. And just as overwhelmed teachers are leaving APS’ special education system in droves, so too are parents removing their kids from the district – sometimes home-schooling, other times leaving the state altogether.
As Urijah Salazar nears the end of his time in elementary school, his mother isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She’s worried about the transition to sixth grade, given the deep mistrust of school staff that Urijah has developed after years of restraint and seclusion.
“He doesn’t trust anyone at school, and why should he?” McGilbert said. “It’s been trauma after trauma. He’s never had the chance to just be a kid.”
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative and public service journalism in New Mexico.