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Concord filmmaker Habib’s latest documentary focuses on seclusion in schools

  • Some of the students in "Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories," the new documentary by Dan Habib.

    Some of the students in "Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories," the new documentary by Dan Habib.

  • Dan Habib

    Dan Habib

  • Some of the students in "Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories," the new documentary by Dan Habib.
  • Dan Habib

Helena Stephenson was locked in a small cement room beneath her school for 35 days straight. Five teachers and aides sat on the limbs and chest of Jino Medina and yelled at him to listen. Brianna Hammon was locked inside a small closet with the threat of being strapped to a wooden chair.

In Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories, Dan Habib, filmmaker in residence at the UNH Institute on Disability, documents the school experiences of these three students and two others from across the country who have physical or mental disabilities. Their stories, told by themselves or their parents, describe the trauma they suffered when they were placed in segregated classrooms and subjected to physical restraints or isolated seclusion.

The film centers on the 2012 TASH Conference in Long Beach, Calif., in December, where the students and their parents gave their testimonials to spread the word of injustices suffered by many disabled students who are often unable to speak up for themselves.

“That’s the power of film, you can bring people to the lives of students who can talk about this firsthand,” said Habib, a Concord resident and former Monitor photo editor. “And people need to know about them. How else will people be motivated to pass the kind of laws that will stop this from happening so frequently?”

Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Habib filmed the documentary at the request of the National Center on Trauma Informed Care and TASH, an international association dedicated to preserving the inclusion of people with disabilities and their rights.

Moving premiere

The film’s premiere May 30 at the National Youth Transition Center in Washington, D.C., served as the kickoff event for the Stop Hurting Kids national campaign, an effort to end seclusion and restraint in American schools.

Habib said audience members were incredibly moved by the film and expressed sadness, anger and indignation at the students’ stories. Although most viewers at the premiere were familiar with the issue, many of the more than 2,200 people who have watched the film online since its initial screening have expressed disbelief to Habib.

“Many people involved in special education have written me and said, ‘I had no idea how prevalent this is,’ ” he said. “That’s part of the goal, to make people understand that it may seem like a thing of the past, kids being held down . . . but it’s not. It still happens quite a lot in New Hampshire and nationally.”

Habib became involved with advocating for the inclusion of the physically and mentally disabled when his son Samuel, 13, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He has explored issues similar to those in Restraint and Inclusion in previous documentaries.

His 2008 film Including Samuel documents the Habib family’s efforts to include Samuel in every aspect of their lives and demonstrates the difficulties and struggles involved with inclusion.

In 2012 Habib released Who Cares About Kelsey?, which follows the lives of students with emotional or behavioral challenges, particularly Kelsey, a high school student diagnosed with ADHD who has a difficult past. The film demonstrates how students with these difficulties can overcome them with the right educational approaches.

Restraint and seclusion are usually employed when a child physically acts out in a manner that has been determined as dangerous in some way. New Hampshire’s regulations on restraint are progressive compared with other states, Habib said. The state law bans restraint except when there is a threat of “imminent, serious, physical harm” to the student or others, and it declares restraint can only be used following the failure of less restrictive measures.

Lack of regulation

Despite this, New Hampshire lacks a law specifically regulating seclusion, and Habib said improvements still need to be made both on a state and federal level.

“Nobody is proposing restraint be completely banned, but, unfortunately, restraint is used pretty liberally when a kid might be disobeying or might be damaging property,” he said. “With kids who have mental health issues or other challenges, it needs to be regulated very carefully.”

Jennifer Bertrand of Mont Vernon can attest to the need to improve restraint laws for New Hampshire schools. Bertrand’s daughter Chloe has significant developmental disabilities and very limited communication skills, which led to her being physically restrained at school several times when she was 12 and 13 years old.

While she recognizes teachers restrained her daughter in an effort to keep her safe, Bertrand said educators should be trained how to address children’s underlying behavioral needs, which are often manifested by nonverbal children in negative behavior.

“They don’t have their words to express themselves or how they feel or if there’s something going on inside of them,” she said. “It’s not that the child is a bad kid, they’re just desperately trying to communicate and understand the world. . . . It is the symptom of a problem and not the problem itself.”

Bertrand serves on the board of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities and was a founding member of the southern chapter of ABLE NH, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the disabled and pushing for their inclusion.

Through her advocacy work, Bertrand was a member of an April delegation that met with New Hampshire’s Special Education Advisory Committee and recommended several changes to the state’s laws on restraint and seclusion.

Bertrand is particularly passionate about the recommendation that the law require schools to notify parents of any incident of restraint or seclusion within one hour of its occurrence. Currently, schools are only required to notify parents within 24 hours.

At the times her daughter was restrained, Bertrand was notified the following day, which was always the first she heard of the incident, since Chloe is nonverbal.

“It was scary for me not to know that day and not to be able to address her emotional needs,” she said. “I need to know so that if there is the possibility of a medical condition, I could bring her to the doctor immediately and follow up on any possible medical concerns.”

The delegation also recommended New Hampshire’s laws explicitly define what qualifies as serious imminent harm in order to ensure restraint is only used in the context of an actual emergency, and that they include specific regulations on seclusion.

Looking ahead

Ideally, Bertrand said she would like to see Habib’s documentary not only prompt the state’s Special Education Advisory Committee to adopt ABLE NH’s recommendations, but also for it to spur Congress to pass the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would set up a baseline standard of protection from restraint and seclusion in schools across the country.

“I’m very excited for the direction we are headed in and the awareness this is bringing,” Bertrand said. “I’m hoping my school district could be a leader in the state on this issue.”

The film is available for the public to watch and download on the Stop Hurting Kids campaign website, stophurtingkids.com/the-film, and Habib said he encourages teachers and advocates to use it to educate others on the issue.

The University of New Hampshire will also show the documentary in July during the Institute on Disability’s National Center on Inclusive Education Summer Institute.

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan@cmonitor.com.)

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