Some schools are requiring students with disabilities to obtain “psychiatric clearances” in order to return after a disciplinary issue. (Shutterstock)
WOODBRIDGE, N.J. — The Bayonne mother wasn’t surprised to get the call in October that her third grader had a meltdown at school — again.
Since the start of the school year, the 8-year-old boy had regularly lashed out at classmates and teachers and refused to do his school work. This time, he was kicking, spitting and throwing things in class, his mother was told.
The boy, who has autism and other disabilities, had just transferred into a new elementary school and was not adjusting well to his general education class, his mother said. He needed more specialized help than the Hudson County school district was providing, she said.
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When the Bayonne mother arrived to pick him up after his latest meltdown, school officials, police and EMTs were waiting for her.
School administrators said the 8-year-old wasn’t suspended. But, he could not return to his public school classroom until he got a “clearance’ letter from a psychiatrist saying the boy was not a danger to himself or others.
Until then, he had to stay home, his mother was told.
“They basically said, per their school policy, the guidance counselor would have to come with me to Hoboken hospital if we took him there — or they offered for the Bayonne Board of Ed to set up a psychological evaluation for clearance,” said the mother, who asked that her family’s name not be used to protect her son’s privacy.
A growing number of New Jersey schools are requiring students to get mental health evaluations — often referred to as “psychiatric clearances,” “risk assessments” or “clearance letters” — in order to return to class after discipline incidents, advocates say.
Although psychiatric evaluations have been required in the past for students who showed signs they were suicidal or in a mental health crisis, parents and advocates say more schools began requiring the assessments after classes resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, students are being told to get mental evaluations after getting in fights or making statements that school officials believe are threatening.
Some advocates say school officials — understaffed and overwhelmed by the mental health problems of students after the pandemic — have begun relying on psychiatric clearances as a way to quickly remove the most difficult special education and general education students from their classrooms. Others say schools have grown more cautious in the wake of recent school shootings and want more students who may be violent screened by professionals.
Whatever the reason, parents say the growing use of psychiatric clearances is a problem because New Jersey has almost no rules about how they can be used in schools. Who does the psychiatric evaluation? Who pays for it? How long can a student be removed from school? Are they required to have at-home tutoring or virtual lessons while they wait for an evaluation?
Organizations for families with kids with disabilities say they’ve seen a spike in the number of parents looking for help after their children were barred from school until they got psychiatric clearances.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick since we’ve gotten back post-COVID. The return to school increased the calls that we’re getting from families. The last time I checked the calls were up 433%,” said Peg Kinsell, institutional policy director at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, a statewide group that advocates for students with disabilities.
Legislation recently introduced in Trenton would require schools to report for the first time how many students they are barring from returning to school while they await psychiatric clearance. But the proposed law would not mandate any rules or regulations detailing when psychiatric clearances could be required.
The legislation is part of a bill that would also require schools to tell parents when their children are being locked into “quiet rooms” — a controversial practice that uses unfurnished, closet-sized rooms to seclude students when teachers say they are too out-of-control to remain in class.
An NJ Advance Media investigation, “Inside the quiet rooms,” published in June found at least 1,150 New Jersey students were forced into seclusion spaces in recent years for alleged misbehavior. The report found many schools were locking young children — including students with disabilities who have a limited ability to communicate — into isolation closets for relatively minor offenses, such as refusing to do assignments, fighting with classmates or taking off their shoes in class.
Advocates say it is often the same group of vulnerable students that many schools are requiring to get psychiatric clearances to return to school, even though getting the mental evaluations is sometimes difficult for families.
“Some school districts send students to evaluators that they use and they pay for it. Other school districts — it’s like you’re on your own, go to the emergency room,” Kinsell said. “They aren’t offering to pay for the evaluation.”
In some cases, parents said they got a mental evaluation for their children, only to have the school district say it was not the right kind of evaluation or additional paperwork was needed. Meanwhile, the student was forced to stay home, missing weeks of in-person classes.
“We have parents that have gotten evaluations and the district says, yeah that’s not good enough,” Kinsell said. “We had one family that went through two or three iterations of evaluations that didn’t quite muster up to whatever this model is that switches from district to district to district.”
“There are no parameters,” she added. “There’s no structure around what you can do, how long you can keep a kid out.”
State Department of Education officials said they had no information about any state rules related to when psychiatric clearances can be required by schools or how many students are kept out of class each year.
“The New Jersey Department of Education does not collect or maintain any such statistics,” said Shaheed Morris, a spokesman for the department.
The 277-page “New Jersey Comprehensive School-Based Mental Health Resource Guide,” which the state sent to schools last summer, briefly mentions psychiatric clearances.
The guide says in some circumstances schools can request that a student get evaluated by a licensed mental health clinician “to formally rule out risk of harm to self or others.” The letter should include “an explicit statement that notes ‘at this point in time” the student does not present a danger to his/ her/ themselves,” the guidance says.
But the guide does not say whether the school or the parents should arrange the psychiatric evaluation, who pays for it or how long students can be kept out of school as they wait for clearance letters. It also doesn’t say whether the student should get virtual schooling at home while they wait for their evaluation or whether parents can appeal.
By contrast, when a student is suspended, there is a long, detailed process that schools must follow that ensures students get schooling at home after five days away from class, advocates say. Under the suspension process, parents usually have a method of filing an appeal if they disagree with school officials keeping their children out of school.
When a psychiatric clearance is required, many parents are left on their own to navigate the process to get their kids back in school, said Renay Zamloot, a veteran non-attorney advocate who represents New Jersey families of special education students in disputes with their schools.
“Sometimes parents can’t quickly secure a psychiatric clearance. So, they’re traveling all over the place trying to find a psychiatrist once a district throws a kid out,” Zamloot said.
Some student miss weeks or months of school while their families try to navigate the system, which includes a shortage of counselors and psychiatrists that specialize in children in New Jersey.
Advocates worry about what happens when the students come from low-income families, non-English speaking families or families with other difficulties that make it difficult to secure a psychiatric evaluation and get their students cleared to return to school.
In many cases, the school districts give families minimal information and don’t outline a clear process for parents to follow, Zamloot said.
“They don’t give them much help or information,” she said.
In Bayonne, the mother who said her third grader was barred from school in October while he awaited a psychiatric clearance said she was confused by the process.
Bayonne officials did not respond to a request to comment on the boy’s case or the school district’s policies on requiring psychiatric evaluations for students.
The mother said she chose to have the school district provide a psychiatrist to evaluate her son, instead of choosing the district’s other option of taking him immediately to a hospital, where he would likely have to wait hours in an emergency room before anyone saw him.
He would have to do at-home learning until he could get an appointment with the psychiatrist chosen by the district, she was told.
“They warned me it could take a few days,” she said.
But, arranging the appointment with the psychiatrist provided by the school took three weeks, she said. Then, getting the psychiatrist’s final written report to school district officials took another 11 days.
During that time, she said she emailed district officials to ask whether she could speed the process by just taking her son to a hospital to get him screened immediately and get the necessary clearance letter. But she said she got no response.
“It’s ridiculous that I’m not even being acknowledged and it’s lasting that long,” the mother said.
The school district never provided the boy’s family with anything in writing explaining what type of document was required for her son to return to school or if she had any ability to appeal the process, she said. She eventually began contacting disability rights advocates, attorneys and parents support groups for help.
Disability advocates say requests for psychiatric evaluations are one of several ways for schools to remove students from class. It is referred to as an “informal removal” because, unlike a suspension or expulsion, it is not recorded or tracked in any way by the state or federal government.
Other methods of “informal removal” from class include calling parents to pick up kids early from school on a regular basis because of their behavior or putting them in empty classrooms or the principal’s office multiple time a week for long periods.
Some advocates call the methods “off-the-books” discipline and say they are a way for school districts to avoid federal laws that say all children, including those with disabilities, are entitled to an education. But many educators say understaffed and overburdened school officials are using whatever methods they can to keep students and teachers safe.
The National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group for students and their families, released a report last year detailing how schools across the country are using various forms of “informal removals” and calling for states and the federal government to come up with better rules.
“The reality is that we have no idea exactly how many children are removed from school ‘off the books’ because school districts do not include these removals in reports to the public. But we do know that protection and advocacy agencies represent hundreds of such children per year and that these removals are harmful to them,” the report said.
In New Jersey, the legislation that would require schools to report to the state how often they are requiring psychiatric clearances for students to return to school has not come up for a vote yet before the full Senate or Assembly.
The Senate bill, S3027, was introduced by state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, head of the Senate education committee. It was passed unanimously by the education committee, but has been awaiting a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee since September.
The Assembly version of the bill, A4675, was introduced at the same time, but has not advanced.
In Bayonne, the third grader had been out of school for nearly two months when the holiday break began at his elementary school last month.
He was finally seen by the psychiatrist chosen by the school district at an office in Bayonne in November. But, the evaluator barely spoke to the boy, according to his mother, who was in the room during the visit.
The psychiatrist concluded the boy should be kept at home until a new school placement is found for him, his mother said.
Officials eventually agreed he should be placed in a private school or out-of-district school paid for by the Bayonne school district that can better meet his needs. But finding a new school will take time.
Until then, he has been continuing his virtual school lessons at home, completing online assignments while his mother is working remotely at home in their small apartment.
Academically, he’s still doing well and testing above his grade level in some subjects. But, it has been a difficult arrangement, his mother said.
“The more he’s out of school, the more he’s regressing in behavior,” she said. “His behavior is getting worse at home … In terms of social interactions and social behavior, it’s getting really bad.”
“I want him back in school,” his mother said.
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