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Horry County resolves US civil rights review about treatment of disabled students

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The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced May 24 that it has resolved its compliance review of restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities in Horry County Schools. Horry County Schools/Provided

CONWAY — The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced May 24 that it has resolved its compliance review of restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities in Horry County Schools.

The compliance review was opened in 2019 to examine whether South Carolina's third-largest school district was preventing students with disabilities from receiving a fair and appropriate public education through its restraint and seclusion policies.

Horry County Schools agreed to seven action items as part of the resolution, including training staff, designating an administrator to monitor the district's use of restraint and seclusion, and improving record keeping for restraint and seclusion incidents.

S.C. Department of Education guidelines state that seclusion — involuntary confinement alone in an area the student cannot leave — should only be used to "control behavior when less restrictive measures have not effectively de-escalated the risk of injury."

Department guidelines state that restraining a student's movement of their arms, legs or head should only be used when they pose a "clear, present, and imminent physical danger" to themselves or others.

Mechanical restraints are prohibited in South Carolina public schools, and Horry County Schools did not report any use of mechanical restraints — only physical — in 2017-18 and 2018-19, the two academic years preceding the Office of Civil Rights review.

“I thank Horry County Schools for its commitment to revise its practices and procedures regarding the use of restraint and seclusion to ensure that students with disabilities receive the education to which they are entitled,” said Catherine Lhamon, U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights.

Horry County Schools spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier told The Post and Courier that the district "has been and will continue to ensure that students with disabilities receive the education to which they are entitled. Since 2019, Horry County Schools has made modifications as recommended, and we will continue to follow any additional recommendations provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights."

As part of the review, officials from the Office for Civil Rights surveyed parents, toured seclusion rooms and interviewed staff at Forestbrook Elementary School, St. James Intermediate School, Whittemore Park Middle School and the Therapeutic Learning Center.

The seclusion rooms at the four schools were described generally as small spaces with a window and door with observation panel but no furniture, many of them located next to special-needs classrooms. Officials noted several such spaces at the Therapeutic Learning Center, which serves Horry County students with "severe emotional and social challenges."

The district submitted "incorrect" restraint or seclusion data for the 2017-18 school year to the Office for Civil Rights, according to the resolution agreement.

Horry County Schools recorded 675 restraint incidents involving 76 students and 362 seclusion incidents involving 44 students in 2017-18. However, data for that year submitted to the Office of Civil Rights indicated that 56 students were restrained and 29 were secluded. 

"(D)uring the 2017-2018 school year, staff restrained or secluded one student 131 times, totaling 12 hours and 43 minutes, another student 143 times, totaling 27 hours and 38 minutes, and another student 86 times, totaling 10 hours and 18 minutes," according to a May 24 letter announcing the resolution. The Office of Civil Rights' "review of each student’s file indicated that the (individualized education plan) team did not record any discussion about the frequent use of restraint or seclusion. There was also no indication that these students were reevaluated at any time during the 2017-2018 school year."

Responses to the parent survey indicated that some students subjected to restraint or seclusion missed work that was not made up.

"In response, all the parents who indicated their child was restrained or secluded responded that their child missed instructional time, and only about half of those responses indicated that the missed instructional time was made up," the May 24 letter read.

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