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Her autistic son was restrained and isolated at school. Why didn’t SFUSD report it?

After SFUSD failed to report the incidents as required by law, Beth Kelly is demanding an investigation: ‘My child is not even a statistic, and he should be.’

A woman sits on a gray couch in a cozy room with a Persian rug, artworks, and plush toys.
Beth Kelly is asking the state to investigate the district’s restraint data collection and reporting practices and order SFUSD to comply with state and federal reporting requirements in a complaint filed Wednesday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Beth Kelly was reading a classroom aide’s notes to prepare for a meeting about her 8-year-old autistic son’s special education plan in early November 2022 when she learned something that shocked her: On at least two occasions, school staff had shut him by himself in a place called the “sensory room” in response to behavioral episodes.

In one instance, according to the notes, the principal stood outside holding the door while the boy was “banging on the door & crying.”

“I was like wait, wait, wait,” Kelly told The Standard of her reaction. It was the first time she had heard of the sensory room or that it was being used for seclusion, a practice whose use is legally circumscribed and controversial among educators.

As far as Kelly knows, her son, whose name is not being published to protect his privacy, was secluded at least twice and physically restrained by staff multiple times at Clarendon Alternative Elementary School during the 2022-23 school year. But when it came time for the San Francisco Unified School District to report all restraints and seclusions used in its schools to the state as required by law, the district didn’t report a single incident. 

Across its more than 100 schools, SFUSD logged zero restraints and zero seclusions, while two of its charter schools reported two restraints each, according to data filed with the California Department of Education.

Now, Kelly is asking the state to investigate the district’s restraint data collection and reporting practices and order SFUSD to comply with state and federal reporting requirements in a complaint filed Wednesday.

A woman looks pensively to the side; a fridge with children's drawings and notes, including a colorful creature, is shown.
Beth Kelly, left, sits in the living room at her Sunset District home in San Francisco. A drawing of a Pokemon by her son hangs on the family's refrigerator. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“As a mom, and especially as a mom of a kid with a disability, I don't have tolerance for this … because otherwise how are they going to know if they’re just broadly violating civil rights?” she said. “Without that data and information, there's no information that parents have about, like, ‘Hey, are kids being secluded and restrained at my school? Is my kid being secluded and restrained?’”

Under California law, educational providers are allowed to physically and mechanically restrain students or involuntarily confine them “only to control behavior that poses a clear and present danger of serious physical harm to the pupil or others that cannot be immediately prevented by a response that is less restrictive.” But the law points out that restraint and seclusion can also cause physical injuries, long-lasting trauma and even death.

In 2018, 13-year-old Max Benson died after staff at his El Dorado Hills school held the autistic boy facedown in a prone restraint for allegedly spitting on a classmate. A teacher and two school administrators were later charged with involuntary manslaughter in a case set to go to trial in September, according to online court records. State Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) has introduced a bill that would prohibit schools from using prone restraints, which are already banned in other states.

The U.S. Department of Education has said that there is no evidence that restraint or seclusion, which are disproportionately used against students with disabilities and students of color, actually reduces the occurrence of the behaviors that prompt their use. Disability rights activists, parents and other critics have argued that restraint and seclusion are physically and psychologically harmful to children and should rarely—if ever—be used in the school setting. 

“The use of restraints and seclusion have no place in the educational context at all,” said Munmeeth K. Soni, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California. “We need to eliminate this thinking that they need to be used as a means of last resort to protect students and others because the data shows, the evidence shows, that they do more harm.”

In the months before Kelly’s son was secluded, he had been having a difficult time at school. According to the classroom aide’s notes and incident reports reviewed by The Standard, the boy would get upset, oftentimes at recess or during his physical education class, and then he would get physical, kicking mini pylons, swinging his lunchbox at others or pinching another student, staff member or himself. In some cases, he was forcibly escorted away from his classmates, which only seemed to make him more aggressive. 

Kelly said when her son entered SFUSD as a kindergartner, she and her husband asked for support services, like applied behavior analysis therapy, but what was provided often fell short of what he needed.

“It was missed opportunity after missed opportunity to support him in being able to manage this environment,” she said. “And he did; he hurt kids. It was terrible … and we kept getting promises, ‘Oh, we’re going to fix this,’ ‘This isn’t going to happen again.’ … Nothing changed and it just got worse.”

Then on Oct. 27, 2022, a school social worker placed him in seclusion for “throwing books at walls, kids and [a] teacher,” according to an incident report prepared by the school. 

“I think that the principal called and told me … ‘Oh, he had an incident today. He was in the sensory room,’ like we didn't know what that meant,” Kelly said. “They didn't say he was secluded in the sensory room or ‘We held the door shut when he was in the room.’ ... They didn't tell us any of that.”

A school with a colorful mosaic façade sits below a hillside dotted with houses.
Beth Kelly said her son was secluded and restrained multiple times at Clarendon Alternative Elementary School during the 2022-23 school year when he was in the third grade. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Six days later, on Nov. 2, 2022, the 8-year-old boy was secluded again for pulling out another student’s hair after he was struck in the face with a hockey puck, according to Kelly and a behavioral emergency report.

“He reacted badly, as can be expected,” Kelly wrote in a Nov. 5 email to school staff after she found out from the aide’s notes that he had been secluded on two separate occasions.

“[He] has sensory processing challenges and I can't imagine how painful that must have been,” she told staff. “[He] needed comfort, not restraint and isolation. He expressed to me, with difficulty, that he finds this isolation scary.”

Kelly’s son is now 9 and attends a school outside SFUSD where he is thriving, she said. But the fact that his seclusions and the other times he was restrained at Clarendon were not reported to the state is unacceptable.

“The things that happened to my son are frickin’ traumatic,” Kelly told The Standard. “It was devastating to him, it was devastating to our family—it should not happen.”

She added that the point of filing the complaint, which Kelly has also shared with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, is to get accountability. 

“You know how some people are like, ‘Oh, I don't want my child to be a statistic,’” she said. “My child is not even a statistic, and he should be.”

In a statement provided to The Standard, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said she could not speak to the incidents involving Kelly’s son “to protect student confidentiality,” but said the district takes “all reports of a concern very seriously and as soon as a concern is brought to our attention, we take steps to immediately investigate and provide support to any impacted students or families.”

“We care deeply about the safety of our students, and are committed to supporting children who may be dysregulated or displaying challenging behaviors with dignity and safety,” Dudnick said. “SFUSD recognizes the importance of adequate and appropriate training to all staff regarding seclusion and restraint practices, which can be in some cases the only way to prevent a child from harming themself, or another student or staff member.”

She added that the district provides crisis management training throughout the school year and that when a student is restrained or secluded, “school teams are required by law to memorialize the incident and the support provided to the student.”

Dudnick did not answer The Standard’s questions about why no restraints or seclusions were reported to the state Department of Education for the 2022-23 school year or how many times school staff restrained or secluded students.

Kelly’s own efforts to get data about her son’s restraints and seclusions were unsuccessful. In a March 6 email, the district’s special education records department wrote that it did not have the documentation she was requesting.

A person is seated holding a plush wolf toy, with a bed and pillow in the background.
Beth Kelly holds her son's Clarendon Elementary husky plush toy. The now 9-year-old attends a school outside SFUSD where he is thriving, she said. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“I don’t think they have any idea how much they have restrained or secluded students,” Kelly said. “I am guessing they don’t even have that information.”

It’s not the first time the district reported zero restraints or seclusions to the state. According to an August 2023 report by Disability Rights California, SFUSD, which is the sixth-largest public school district in the state with over 55,000 students, didn’t report a single incident during the 2019-20, 2020-21 or 2021-22 school years as required by Assembly Bill 2657, a 2018 law that limited the use of restraints and seclusion and restored data collection and reporting requirements.

By comparison, Elk Grove Unified, the fifth-largest district with about 63,000 students, reported 96 restraints and two seclusions for the 2022-23 school year, while San Bernardino City Unified, which has about 50,400 students, reported 38 restraints and 13 seclusions, according to Kelly’s complaint.

But SFUSD wasn’t the only district that reported nothing. In fact, 74% of all reporting school districts reported zero restraints or seclusions for the 2021-22 school year, according to the Disability Rights California report.

It’s unclear what could come of Kelly’s complaint or what the state could do to ensure that SFUSD—and other school districts—comply with the reporting requirements of AB 2657. Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said the agency requires districts to certify that its restraint data is accurate and complete, but there is no mechanism written in the law for the state to ensure that the data is correct. 

There is no specific mechanism in law for the filing of or investigation of such a complaint at the state level, nor does the Legislature fund such work,” Roark said in an email.

He added that parents can notify their districts if they have a concern about inaccurate data.

“At most there could be public shaming and an investigation,” said Soni, the litigation counsel at Disability Rights California. “It’s so rampant, and it’s happening throughout the state, as well as throughout the country, that I don't even think the feds have the ability to … investigate all the schools and the school districts where it happens to ensure [reporting] and then implement measures like corrective reform.”

Instead, Soni said the best—and maybe the only—way to get accountability is through litigation.

Without the data, there is no way to know how widespread the practices are, if they’re being used properly—and according to law—and whether students with disabilities or other groups are being disproportionately affected.

“The thought of any child having to go through this is—it’s morally reprehensible,” Kelly said. “It's offensive, and this is not how we treat our most vulnerable members of society. … To have another parent have to experience this and see their own kid go through this it should not happen.”

Stephanie K. Baer can be reached at