Smithfield, N.C. — Disability advocates claim Johnston County Schools violated state law by routinely restraining more than a dozen special needs students, but district officials deny any major wrongdoing.
Investigators with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights recently found that at least 18 students at West Clayton Elementary School and Four Oaks Elementary School were improperly restrained.
"It's wrong. It's beyond inappropriate," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, and Smith said improperly restraining special needs students is a statewide problem.
Leanna George said she sat in on her daughter's class at Four Oaks Elementary last year and characterized the treatment she saw as abuse.
"She was in the chair for almost 90 percent of the time she was there at school," George said Friday.
Ten-year-old Serenity George, a fifth-grader, was diagnosed with autism and borderline mental retardation when she was 2½. Knowing her daughter has behavioral problems, George said she gave teachers permission to restrain Serenity for what she thought would be on a limited basis.
"If I was at home and I had my child sitting in a chair strapped down like that for several hours on end, I'd be in trouble with Child Protective Services," George said. "Yet, they're able to do this at school and get away with it."
Tracey Peedin Jones, the spokeswoman for the Johnston County Schools, didn't acknowledge any responsibility for improper use of restraints.
"The Office of Civil Rights, they focused on our documentation of the use of adaptive chairs, not the actual use of the adaptive chairs," Peedin Jones said.
The report indicated some teachers never received any training on the use of restraints.
As part of the resolution agreement between the Office of Civil Rights and the school district, the school district will conduct more training, have additional meetings and improve its reporting.
"This agreement does not constitute an admission by the district of any violation," Peedin Jones said.
George said she feels validated by the investigative report that was recently issued.
"If it is illegal for me to do it as a parent, it should be illegal for schools to do it as a school system," she said.