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Details of Chicago Schools Restraining, Isolating Students

A letter from state Superintendent Tony Sanders alleges that the district violates a variety of state laws, ranging from untrained staff restraining students unnecessarily to failure to notify parents and the State Board of Education of incidents.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez chats with people during a student mental health event and panel discussion on Aug. 15, 2022.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Shedding new light on Chicago Public Schools’ recent disclosure that the district violated state laws in its use of physical restraint and isolation of students, a letter from the state education superintendent delves further into CPS’ “systemic” failures.

The letter, written by state Superintendent Tony Sanders to CPS CEO Pedro Martinez in April, was ISBE’s fourth directive ordering CPS to comply with state law. Violations alleged by the state agency range from CPS allowing untrained staff members to restrain students unnecessarily — sometimes for more than hour or through the use of prohibited methods — to the district’s failure to notify parents and review and report all incidents to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Another ISBE official had written CPS in November to say that its “complete disregard for the health and safety of its students and blatant violation of state law is unconscionable.”

An ISBE investigation, sparked by violations made apparent in the district’s own reporting of incidents, found issues “jeopardizing the health and safety of CPS students and staff” that remained ongoing at the time of Sanders’ April 18 letter.

In a statement Friday, a CPS spokesperson said, “We remain committed to continually reviewing and improving our services, working closely with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and all partners, including parents and advocacy groups, to co-design an improved system that not only is in compliance with all State and Federal education requirements, but meets our own high goals for excellence.”

Among possible repercussions CPS faces if violations continue, Sanders’ letter raised the specter of placing the district on probation, “for exhibiting deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students and staff.”

An ISBE spokesperson said in a statement Friday that probation would be a “last resort” and that the state board is providing CPS with “the support and technical assistance they need to understand and comply with the requirements.”

Unreported Restraint of Students by Untrained Employees

Among restraint, timeout and isolation incidents CPS reported to ISBE in the 2021-22 school year, 71 instances involving 41 students occurred unnecessarily, according to the April letter.

“Although CPS has significantly reduced the use of (restraint, timeout or isolated timeout) when no reported imminent danger exists, we still find that it does still occur,” Sanders wrote, adding that many reported incidents continue to involve untrained staff members.

As of March 28, less than half of the 77 schools ISBE had placed on a priority list for training had completed it, with some of those schools continuing to report the use of restraint, despite ISBE having ordered CPS to halt the practice until meeting its training requirements. An additional 16 schools not on ISBE’s priority list also continued to report incidents, the letter states.

“Unequivocally, the rules require that any staff member who participates in a physical restraint, time out, or isolated time out must complete eight hours of training. CPS continues to violate these rules each month by permitting staff to use these techniques on students without the training the rules require,” Sanders wrote.

The April letter also provides an overview, from Feb. 1 to March 8, of missing reports to ISBE and late notifications to parents — attributed in part to CPS’ lack of a central system to collect incident data and the lack of a daily review of incidents by the district’s designated official, Stephanie Jones, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services. (CPS’ use of restraint, isolation and timeout procedures is not limited to special education students.)

Between Feb. 1 and March 8, CPS reported 35 incidents in ISBE’s reporting system. But, in reviewing other documentation, the agency found CPS did not report all incidents that occurred in that timeframe.

In ISBE’s review of 24 forms of alternative documentation, the agency found 22 incidents involved the physical restraint of a student — by at least one untrained staff member in more than half of the incidents. The number of incidents involving no trained staff members is redacted in Sanders’ April letter.

“Multiple physical restraint incidents lasted one hour or more,” the letter states, and in 10 instances, parents weren’t notified within the required time frame. State policy requires schools to attempt to notify parents and guardians of incidents on the same day and to provide a written explanation within one day.

Teachers Union Calls for Administrator’s Removal

The Chicago Teachers Union called last week for the removal of Jones as chief of CPS’ office dedicated to supporting diverse learners, citing ”deficient staff training in restraint practices, among other lapses.”

As of Sanders’ April letter, Jones was also the district’s designated official who is required by state law to be notified of every restraint, isolation and timeout incident by the end of the school day on which it occurred; to receive evaluations of physical restraint lasting more than 15 minutes and timeout incidents surpassing 30 minutes; and to be responsible for maintaining incident records.

Jones told ISBE she delegated the responsibility to a team member who resigned in March, according to Sanders’ April letter. That person reviewed the incident documentation that they received daily, but told ISBE that certain restraint, isolation and timeout data was kept in a separate system she couldn’t access.

“CPS does not have a designated official who is informed and maintains (restraint, isolation and timeout) data as required,” the letter states. “No single CPS official has access to all the systems that house (restraint, isolation and timeout) information. CPS has named Dr. Jones as the designated official, but she does not receive or review this information.”

Regarding the union’s call for Jones’ dismissal, a CPS spokesperson said Friday, “Significant strategic changes to the department have been in motion for some time and pre-date any public statements calling for personnel decisions, which are separate and distinct from the District’s review and work to improve services.”

District leadership does not publicly discuss personnel changes as a matter of professional practice and privacy, the spokesperson added.

Ordered to be Transparent, CPS Initially Dodged

The full list of corrective actions ISBE prescribed CPS is fully redacted in each of the two letters state officials sent the district that were obtained by the Tribune. But the April letter shows one requirement entailed disclosing the district’s violations of state law to CPS parents and guardians.

In a May 26 email sent by the district on a Friday evening, CPS outlined its failures and actions that were underway to remedy them. It wasn’t the district’s first attempt to comply with ISBE’s order.

According to Sanders’ April letter, the district initially confirmed to ISBE in December that it had notified parents of its training violations. But the state agency found CPS had only sent an email promoting a link to a broad plan for improving the district “that had multiple errors and omissions so even if parents followed the link, they did not find accurate information,” the letter states.

It added that “CPS admitted that many parents do not have email addresses so it could not confirm that every parent in the district received the email.” ISBE then ordered the district again to notify parents and guardians of its failures.

In its May parental notification email, CPS listed a dozen violations. The district also said it had developed a plan, including training, to bring it in compliance and that it would receive parents’ concerns regarding restraint, isolation and timeout incidents at a dedicated email address,, while also providing the emails and CPS’ responses to ISBE weekly.

Without specifying the official’s name, the district also said it had designated a responsible staff member who will be informed of incidents on the day they occur and meet with ISBE weekly to review restraint, isolation and timeout data. CPS wrote that it’s also developing a centralized database to document incidents and will create another database encompassing the names of staff members who’ve completed state training requirements.

A spokesperson said Friday, “Our top leadership at CPS has been committed and transparent about the need for improved systems, strategies, and services to support our most vulnerable students through our Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services (ODLSS).”

The district has added more than 170 special education teachers and more than 600 special education classroom assistants since last school year, the spokesperson added.

ISBE’s investigation also discovered the district’s use of prone restraint, in which a student is held face down and physical pressure is applied to their body, in a redacted number of incidents this school year.

“Prone restraint has been prohibited in all schools in Illinois since the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. These incidents are a clear violation,” the letter states.

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