Social media post causes frenzy around blue rooms in MPS

Officials respond to alleged mistreatment of student at Creek Elementary

By Traci Chapman
Staff Writer

A parent’s social media complaints about how a Mustang elementary school’s teachers and administrators allegedly treated his special needs child have created a Facebook firestorm.

The incident began with a Sept. 19 Facebook post by Billy Wynne, who reported incidents he said he learned about the week before, when he and his wife met with teachers and administrators at Mustang Creek Elementary, where his son, Nick, attended school.

-Photo by Jeff Landrith
Pictured is a door to a blue room used by Mustang Public Schools.

Wynne said seven-year-old Nick is on medication for ADHD and “currently being evaluated for autism and also has a sensory processing disorder,” as well as suffering from a food issue that means he will only eat about 10 foods, prompting his parents to send a daily lunch with him to school.

Nick, like other children across the country enrolled in special education, is under an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. IEPs, required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are used to address educational goals, learning challenges, behavioral and other issues that children generally enrolled in special education classes might face. IEPs are most times developed jointly by teachers, administrators, parents and other individuals.

IEPs are a fluid part of a child’s education, changing as the student’s needs might develop and requiring several meetings between those involved in implementing it. Because special needs children can require so much more supervision and interaction with staff than some other students, special education educators say it is particularly important to make sure procedures are in place to help those who might face a behavioral issue that could negatively impact – or even harm – that child or others in the classroom.

The ‘Blue Room’

One of those tools in Mustang Public Schools – and elsewhere – is a room designed to help a student calm down before or as an incident might occur. It is a room not used only for special education students, but for all “students to calm down, take a few deep breaths and refocus so that they are able to rejoin their classmates,” Mustang Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel said.

According to both National Education Association and National Association of Special Education Teachers, these “refocus rooms” are common throughout the country. As one former Canadian County special education teacher and administrator said, “They not only help the individual student take the time to reconnect with what they’re supposed to be doing, they also help to avoid classroom distractions for other students that can be not only hurtful for the learning environment but also personally hurtful as a student might lash out.” In Mustang, these refocus rooms are called “blue rooms,” McDaniel said.

Wynne alleged his son was sent to his classroom’s closet, “being approximately 4 feet by 7 feet, no windows, no padding, cinder block walls, door locked from outside…Nick has been repeatedly locked in the classroom closet for punishment, for an undocumented amount of time, at Mustang Creek Elementary.”

Mustang officials denied not only Wynne’s characterization of the school’s blue room, but also its purpose.
“They were not designed as a means to discipline a child or as a punishment,” McDaniel said.

“Any statement that a teacher has locked students in a ‘closet’ is false,” said Shannon Rigsby, district public information officer.

Officials said rooms are not “closets.” Specifically, the Mustang Creek room referenced by Wynne is 6 feet by 10 feet, “has great lighting and an AC duct in the room,” McDaniel said. District blue rooms – including the one in Nick’s classrooms – have half doors with handles on both sides, which cannot be locked and which can be opened from the inside or outside, administrators said.

Some rooms have no door at all, Rigsby said.

Rooms are used to help students define what is bothering them and how to cope with things that stress them – and McDaniel said students regularly ask teachers if they can go into the room to deal with an issue so they can rejoin their class focused and ready to learn – and while rooms are not intended for punishment, administrators said there are times when they are necessary for seclusion.

“While that is not the intended purpose of a blue room, there are times when a student needs to be separated from the class and from the adults,” McDaniel said. “Seclusion is when a student is involuntarily separated or isolated from others due to a behavior that causes an imminent threat to self or others – seclusion occurs when it is clear that a student’s behavior may result in that student or someone else in the room being harmed.”

Wynne alleged his son “was locked in the closet for three continuous 45-minute blocks” on one particular day, saying Creek teachers and administrators did not keep track of the times a student spent in the blue room – the Mustang man said he discovered the practice and Nick’s participation in it by reviewing daily progress sheets.

Mustang officials and staff could not by law publicly comment on a specific student, even in response to a parent’s allegations, although they generally disputed that students were treated in such a manner. McDaniel did, however, address the need for better communication throughout the district.

“Most of the time we communicate very well at all levels; however, we do fall short at times – we need to improve and we will,” McDaniel said. “We began a complete review of all of our practices, policies, and procedures specific to this specific topic and we will make the changes necessary that we believe will serve our students and families at the highest level.”

Lunch Allegations

With Nick’s eating challenges, Wynne said the only way his son would eat was by taking home-packed lunches to school. While Mustang officials again could not comment directly about a specific student, they did say students are not told they cannot eat lunch; one district staff member, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said Wynne’s allegations that Creek’s vice principal told him his child would “go hungry” if he didn’t eat school lunches was “ludicrous.”

“In almost 20 years in Mustang I have never, not once, heard of anyone making a student miss lunch or barring a child from eating a home-packed lunch,” the staff member said. Wynne referenced a grant program in place at Mustang Creek for the reason the school allegedly would not allow his son to eat lunches brought from home; McDaniel said that program – BRAIN – does not have that requirement.

“The grant, a research-based program developed in our district, does not require students to eat school lunches only,” the superintendent said. “Each site that has a BRAIN program has the discretion to develop specific practices that the site committee believes will be effective for kids at that school.”

Because district officials could not comment specifically on Nick’s situation, they could not officially address Wynne’s specific complaints, they said.

“One thing I will say is during the six years I have been here, I have not received a single report from a parent, an employee, law enforcement or anyone else regarding one of our students being abused or tortured by an employee,” McDaniel said. “I have a wide-open door and meet with parents regularly to listen and help when I can – I enjoy it.

“While I do strongly believe in the chain of command, you do not have to wait to get to me if you have a pressing issue,” he said. “I may redirect you to someone who can help with your concern and better answer your questions, but I am happy to step in when needed.”

What’s Next

McDaniel said not only would the district review its policies in connection with stated criticisms; the state Department of Education would be reviewing those, as well.

“We will have the state department send representatives to review our programs, policies, procedures and our blue rooms,” McDaniel said. “They will provide us with recommendations that we can implement to better serve our kids.”

With Wynne’s Sept. 19 post engendering 834 comments and 1,116 shares as of late Monday, as well as several television media reports, McDaniel called out those who were criticizing his employees without knowing all the facts.

“Criticism of our employees, our schools and our district is fair game – it stinks but it comes with the territory,” he said. “If, however, you are a part of our district; past, present, or future, or if you have a family member or friend that is, or if you are a supporter that just may disagree with us, we definitely want to hear what you think and we will continue to work hard for you – what you believe to be true matters.

“To our Creek crew – I am sorry that you have had to read the comments directed at you this week,” the superintendent said. “You are one awesome team, and I am proud of the work you do every day – there is absolutely nothing that you have done that warrants the kind of attack you have been under this week.”

Editor’s Note:

To see Dr. Sean McDaniel’s full statement, go to:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/mpsparents/permalink/1965937220321163/

To see Billy Wynne’s full Facebook post, go to:
https://www.facebook.com/billy.wynne.7/posts/10214159524566134

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