Bangor Regional Program's main building on Maine Avenue in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

Kyle Michaud took a job as an education technician at the Bangor Regional Program in May 2016 thinking it would help him become a teacher. But he didn’t expect to spend so much time dragging students down the hallway and shutting them into small rooms.

He remembers one morning in January 2018 when he barked orders to restrain a middle-school student in the bathroom after the student’s behavior became dangerous.

Michaud gripped one of the student’s arms and instructed his colleague to hold the other. Together, they started dragging the middle schooler to an empty room, the student kicking and screaming the whole way. Michaud and his colleague sped up until they were almost running.

Once they reached the empty room, “we dropped him off, he started screaming, we shut the door,” Michaud said. The door muffled the student’s screams.

Michaud took part in hundreds of such student restraints — when he and colleagues would restrict a student’s movement in some way — in the nearly two years he worked at the Bangor Regional Program, where 22 Bangor-area school districts send students with intensive special needs, most commonly autism.

Initially, he was resistant to using restraints and seclusions, but continued working at the Bangor Regional Program in hopes that the experience would lead to a job as a teacher. He decided to quit two weeks after the restraint in the bathroom, and he has no immediate plans of pursuing a career in education.

Today, “whenever I hear slamming doors, I think of the regional program,” Michaud said. “I really knew what I was a part of was very wrong.”

The U.S. Department of Education has said physically restraining students with disabilities and putting them in seclusion rooms are ineffective at stopping the meltdowns, self-harm and other behaviors educators are trying to control. The federal agency has advised educators against using the practice and has recently targeted the inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion.

But at the Bangor Regional Program, staff members still make regular use of the practices, at some of the highest rates in the state — with administrators defending them because they’re legal.

Under state regulations, school staff can restrain students or place them alone in seclusion rooms in emergencies when students’ behavior risks injuring themselves or others — and only after they’ve tried other strategies to control the behavior. A restraint involuntarily restricts a student’s movement and can range from simply holding a student back to dragging that student down a hallway. During seclusion, staff place a student alone in a room against their will.

At the Bangor Regional Program, staff members have used those emergency interventions more than 1,200 times each year in the past three school years, according to data the program is required to report to the state Department of Education. In one year, staff members placed every single student in seclusion at least once and restrained all but one student. The number of restraints and seclusions worked out to at least 20 per student for all three years and almost 50 per student in one year, according to records the Bangor Daily News obtained through a public records request.

The program’s director, Christina Babin, said staff only use restraints and seclusion in emergencies, such as when a student throws a chair at a window or tries to bolt.

“No one wants to put hands on the child until they have to,” she said. “But if a student becomes a safety risk to themselves or to someone else, we have to maintain safety for ourselves and for others in the building.”

But such a high number of emergencies is a worrying sign, said Ben Jones, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Maine, a statewide legal advocacy organization.

“When you have this many emergencies, it’s a symptom of failure of the program,” Jones said. “These practices end up being abused. Very often, by the time a child is pulled down the hallway and put into the room and the door is shut, that emergency has subsided.”

‘It gave me a headache’

The Bangor Regional Program’s middle school occupies a former office building off Maine Avenue, near Bangor International Airport. Two modular buildings next to the parking lot serve as the high school and elementary school buildings.

The spaces — which Babin allowed a reporter to tour, but of which she didn’t allow photographs — are set up so staff don’t have far to go to seclude a student.

The elementary school has two seclusion rooms in addition to classrooms, and the high school trailer is split into four small learning spaces.

In the main building, all classrooms have an attached overflow space, where Babin said staff members move students when they become agitated. One of the classrooms leads to the library, which consists of bookshelves on opposite walls and no other furniture.

In the center of the building, there is a room with weighted blankets to help with students’ anxiety and bean bag chairs.

Flanking this room are two seclusion spaces — bare, windowless rooms with heavy wooden doors. One seclusion room has an alcove leading up to it that’s large enough for three to four adults to stand in comfortably, but no more.

For a few months at the program, this alcove was Michaud’s working space, where he was assigned to work with a middle-school student with autism.

Her desk was placed in the alcove, which had no overhead lighting at that point, according to a complaint he filed with the Department of Education. Michaud positioned the student’s desk to use residual light from the hallway.

“I was finding myself sticking my head in to talk to the student, and I had to back out periodically because it gave me a headache,” he said. “And then I realized the student had to write in there.”

The school installed a light in the alcove in February 2017 following Michaud’s complaint.

The student’s desk was in the alcove, Michaud said, because it was right outside the seclusion room where she would often end up.

“She screamed so loud in the timeout room that I could hear through my ear protection,” he said. “It was hurting her ears inside that timeout room, and the only reason she was screaming is because she was in there. If you brought her out and talked to her and tried to get her to comply, you might be able to get somewhere.”

Michaud and another education technician at the school — whose time at the program mostly preceded Michaud’s — said the message from colleagues and managers was to use restraints and seclusion often.

The other education technician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to endanger his relationship with the Bangor School Department, said he only restrained the middle-school student he was assigned to work with if the student started physically harming him. One time, for example, the student tried to stab the education technician in the eye with a pencil.

“Other staff would tell me to put the student in a restraint more often,” he said.

‘They’re happening a lot’

The Bangor School Department took over management of the Bangor Regional Program in the 2014-15 school year, when the program moved to its Bangor location from Old Town.

The next school year, 2015-16 — the first for which there are reliable data — staff secluded every one of the 27 enrolled students at least once and restrained all but one student. The number of restraints and seclusions used that year worked out to nearly 50 per student.

In 2016-17, Michaud’s first full year with the program, more than a third of the 62 students were either restrained or secluded at least once. The total number of restraints and seclusions worked out to more than 20 per student. School staff could not say why the enrollment spiked that year.

In 2017-18, 39 of the 69 enrolled students were restrained against their will a total of more than 1,100 times. Forty-two students spent some time inside a seclusion room a total of more than 460 times. The total number of restraints and seclusions worked out to nearly 23 per student.

These are the raw numbers of restraints and seclusions used in each of the past three years:

The Bangor Regional Program placed either first or second in the state for its use of restraints and seclusion in each of those three years, above schools with comparable student populations, according to state data compiled by Jones, the Disability Rights Maine attorney. The dataset doesn’t include every Maine school, but it’s the most comprehensive data available on the practices.

Even outside of the Bangor Regional Program and schools like it that serve students with disabilities, data compiled by Jones show Maine schools use restraints and seclusion at a rate that’s 12 times the national average.

To arrive at this number, Disability Rights Maine compared national numbers from 2014 and 2016 that states reported to the U.S. Department of Education with data Maine schools are required to report to the state Department of Education.

“These are dangerous practices, and they’re happening a lot,” Jones said. “These numbers are disheartening. We now have six years of data, and the use has gone up every single year.”

‘Following the law’

A U.S. Department of Education resource document from 2012 advises policymakers and school officials that they should work to prevent the need for restraints and seclusions.

“As many reports have documented, the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death,” then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote. “Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

Asked why the Bangor Regional Program uses restraints and seclusions so frequently, Babin said, “We are following the law.”

Patti Rappaport, director of pupil services for the Bangor School Department, said the school is effective at helping students with significant disabilities.

“We can work with them to have them learn how to behave in a school setting and hope that they can transfer that to the community,” she said.

The REAL (Relevant, Experiential, Authentic, Learning) School, run by the Brunswick School Department, serves a similar student population as the Bangor Regional Program. But it doesn’t use restraints and seclusions at all, said Page Nichols, a restorative learning specialist at the program.

“We fundamentally disagree with restraints and seclusions as practices,” she said. “We’re trying to teach our students self-management skills. Restraints and seclusions really take away that personal power we’re trying to develop in them.”

The REAL School hasn’t used restraints and seclusions since 2003, Nichols said. The school encourages staff members to develop close relationships with students so they can defuse situations before they become dangerous, she said.

“The idea of that being something that helps children is a flawed mentality,” she said.

“It’s more of a management tactic. It manages behavior for a moment, but does not address it more deeply than that.”

One potential antidote to the frequent use of restraint and seclusion challenges the whole premise of a school like the Bangor Regional Program: Students with disabilities and intensive special needs could remain in their own schools with their mainstream peers, according to Jones.

“Instead of segregating kids all into one building with other students that have similar needs, keep them in their regular education schools,” Jones said. “The services they need can be pushed into that classroom.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act supports this premise, and requires that students be educated in the “least restrictive environment.”

“Kids benefit from being close to their mainstream peers, and there’s some research showing that mainstream peers benefit from having kids with disabilities in the classroom, breeding empathy and patience and leadership,” Jones said.