A mother moved to a school district after arriving to pick up her five-year-old son for a dentist appointment and found he had been suffocated by staff.
Pamela Ononiwu filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Virginia after seeing her son – named in DO court documents – detained by a school resources manager at Fairview Elementary School in October 2018 while he was crying.
Staff told her that DO, who suffers from ADHD, was suffocated after refusing to stop singing loudly during Spanish class.
âTo my shock and horror, I found out that my son was being choked,â Ononiwu, 37, told NBC News. âThis school resource manager held him at a 90-degree angle. My son kept trying to kick things out, and the more the grip tightened.
The mother of three recalled being afraid for herself and her son, saying, âI have told her many times to let my son go. I was scared because I was like, ‘Will I be so devastated trying to save my son?’ But I said it was worth it because I’m not going to be here and let my son die or pass out in front of me.
In shock, the boy’s mother attempted to discuss the situation with the school principal, school district officials and school board members, none of whom wanted to discuss with Ononiwu.
âNo one thought it was odious for a child to be caught in a strangulation. No one had empathy, âsaid Ononiwu. Her son is now eight years old.
Pamela Ononiwu’s son, named DO in court documents, was stranded at his school aged just five for refusing to stop singing loudly during a Spanish class
The court papers make no mention of the security guard’s race, and Ononiwu did not suggest that DO was targeted for being black.
But she has since called for more resources for students with special needs, especially students of color.
She added that her daughter was also tied up and isolated at school. âThey dragged my daughter one day. My daughter told me that they had dragged her into a room; his shoes were in the hallway.
Ononiwu and two other parents then sued the FCPS system claiming they caused “psychological trauma” and “physical harm” to students with disabilities by using restraint and isolation to “silence, detain, separate and punish.”
Pamela Ononiwu sued the Fairfax County School Board after finding her five-year-old son with ADHD held in a strangulation by a school resources officer for singing in class
âThere are alternatives. There are other ways to do it. If you claim that a child has things to work on, the solution isn’t to just throw them in a room. If I did this at home, they would call child protection services, so I don’t understand why this would be allowed in schools, âshe said.
Ononiwu said the parties recently agreed to a settlement, with both monetary relief and major changes to school policy.
She declined to comment on the exact amount of money donated by Fairfax County.
Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest school districts in America, with a median household income of $ 103,000.
He made headlines amid ongoing clashes between parents and school board members over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Opponents of the CRT were also furious to learn that the board of directors had spent $ 20,000 to hire senior anti-racist author Ibram X Kendi to give a one-hour talk on the subject in August 2020.
The school issued a statement regarding Ononiwu’s trial in October 2019. Superintendent Scott S. Brabrand noted that the school system has conducted an independent review of the restraint and seclusion guidelines, more teachers added. ‘behavioral intervention, included additional training for staff and appointed a new ombudsperson for education whose only job is to support parents with special education issues.
FCPS has also established a new Special Education Working Group, made up of parents, community members, FCPS staff and non-profit organizations, to address parent complaints and establish best practices. .
Brabrand said: “We recognize that the use of restraint and seclusion is a particularly sensitive and difficult issue and is only appropriate when less restrictive alternatives fail.”
But he insisted that the independent review of the school system’s procedures found that “its restraint and seclusion policies and practices are appropriate under all relevant laws.”
However, a blog post shared by Ononiwu and written by Callie Oettinger, another parent fighting FCPS over their special education program, said that a new “independent and third party review” conducted by the U.S. research institutes (AIR ) found “disturbing data. ‘
The terrifying incident happened at Fairview Elementary School in Fairfax Station, Va., But is just one example of a national debate over restraint and seclusion practices in schools
The AIR report, released in July 2021, found that students in FCPS special education programs “are at a higher risk of being suspended or expelled for more than 10 days in a school year compared to their previous year. non-specialist peers â.
Not only is disciplinary action not evenly distributed across education programs, the report also cites a “significant race or ethnicity gap in the rate of suspensions and expulsions.”
The AIR also noted that parents and staff felt that their complaints and contributions were not considered when making policy decisions affecting the 27,000 FCPS students in FCPS programs. special education.
Although the lawsuit has been settled, Ononiwu has not stopped fighting for students with special needs, focusing specifically on students of color.
In 2019, she ran a small campaign to join the school board. She was not on the board, but said she has found support from other local families of color who have children with special needs.
âI am in my community talking to other parents, letting them know their rights. A lot of parents will call me and ask for advice, âshe said. âWith restraint and isolation, there are cases where the child can die. Even if they don’t die, it can change their lives forever.
Ononiwo joined the Alliance Against Isolation and Detention to advocate for the Safe All Students Act. The law would “prohibit and prevent seclusion, mechanical restraint, chemical restraint and dangerous restraints that restrict breathing, and prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools and for other purposes.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 2019 that found students with disabilities and boys are being held or isolated at much higher rates than other students.
Data from the Ministry of Education showed that nearly 70,000 students with disabilities were immobilized or isolated in a single school year and that most students in special education were immobilized about three times.
In May, the bill was presented to the Senate and then referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions. At the same time, the bill was introduced in the House. It is only at the first stage of the legislative process.