Gilbert mom Haley Kizer

Gilbert mom Haley Kizer is outraged over how Power Ranch Elementary staff treated her 7-year-old daughter Finley.

Haley Kizer had no idea that Higley Unified School District controls student behavior by putting kids into a small, windowless room with no handle on the inside of the door.

She learned differently last March when her daughter, Finley, 7, refused to go to class at Power Ranch Elementary School.

“That morning, she stood there crying and peed her pants, begging not to go to school,” the Gilbert mom said.

When pressed, the first-grader – who has ADHD, auditory dyslexia, cognitive learning disability and sensory processing disorder – told her mom she was stripped of her shoes and put into a “box room” because she was “bad.”

“When she was in kindergarten, if Finley was having a hard time, the teacher would email or call me or the special-ed teacher would call or email me,” Kizer said.

This time, no one from the school called her, Kizer said, and Finley would have likely remained in the dark until her daughter’s revelation.  

HUSD citing privacy laws would not comment on what happened with Finley.

The so-called “Recovery and Limitations Rooms” are used for the involuntary confinement of HUSD students and are permissible under state statute, according to the district.

“Again, a school is permitted to use restraint and/or seclusion techniques on any pupil,” the district stated. “The use of restraint and seclusion techniques is not limited to pupils with an IEP.”

 An Individualized Educational Plan ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.  

For the 2019-20 academic year, 16 unidentified students were put into a seclusion room. One student was placed into the room 10 times in July, according to district documents requested by Gilbert Sun News.

In the 2020-21 school year, 12 students were placed into the rooms.

“Due to student privacy, we are not able to disclose the campus as it could identify a group of students,” said district spokeswoman Teresa Joseph.

Not all Higley Unified campuses have such a room.

According to the district, Power Ranch Elementary is the only campus that has areas pre-identified for use when the seclusion technique is warranted but that many locations on a campus could be used for that technique.

 Under state statue, a school is allowed to use restraint or seclusion techniques on any student if their behavior “presents an imminent danger of bodily harm to the pupil or others” and if “less restrictive interventions appear insufficient to mitigate the imminent danger of bodily harm.”

Kizer said Finley told her she was out on the playground playing with other kids when some boy kept kicking her feet every time she ran by. It made her angry, so she ended up pushing the little boy, Kizer said. 

 The district, however, said that’s not what happened March 3.

According to an incident report by Assistant Principal Michelle Cota, Finley “began to hit and kick students during lunch recess.” 

A general education teacher took Finley to the front office, where she became upset, “claiming that she had not been hitting and kicking students, rather the teacher was the one hitting and kicking students,” according to the report.

Finley began to run around the office and hid under a table. Cota said she coaxed Finley out and escorted her to a recovery room.

“Once in the recovery room, Finley began to pull way from me, kicking, hitting and scratching me – this continued for two minutes,” Cota said in the report. 

Because Finley did not stop her actions, Cota placed the girl in the seclusion room for 5 minutes to calm down, the report stated. 

Two wall-mounted video cameras in the room allowed staff to monitor the girl.

 Kizer said she was initially told by Cota that Finley was put into the room because she couldn’t keep her hands to herself, knocked over a chair and tossed something on the floor in Cota’s office.

 Under HUSD’s Student Conduct policy, the restraining techniques are not to be used as a punishment for misconduct and that school personnel are required to notify the parent/guardian on the same day they are used unless circumstances prevent same-day notification.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a school’s use of restraint or seclusion may have a traumatic impact on a student.

Even if the student were never again restrained or secluded, the student might nevertheless have new academic or behavioral difficulties that, if not addressed promptly, could constitute a denial of federal financial assistance, the department says.

The fact sheet on restraining and seclusion of students with disabilities said that traumatizing effect could manifest itself in new behaviors, impaired concentration or attention in class or increased absences.

The federal agency’s latest civil rights data report for the 2017-18 school year found of the 101,990 students nationwide who were restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely or were placed in seclusion – 79,676, or 78 percent, were students with disabilities. 

Specifically, 56,905 students were subjected to physical restraint, 1,494 students were subjected to mechanical restraint, and 21,277 students were subjected to seclusion, according to the data.

Kizer said no one from the school called her either to tell her that Finley was having an issue and to come and pick her up or after when she was put into the room.

According to HUSD emails, Kizer called the district office March 4 about the incident. School Principal Chris Reuter on March 5 responded and arranged for Kizer to view the seclusion room that same day.

Kizer demanded to see video tape of her daughter in the room but was told by the district the cameras only provided live feed. She also demanded the district discipline Cota, who she said is not trained in the use of restraints. The district disputes that claim and said Cota is trained.

According to district policy, “restraint or seclusion techniques must be used only by school personnel who are trained in the safe and effective use of restraint and seclusion techniques unless an emergency situation does not allow sufficient time to summon trained personnel.”

Kizer also questioned how much physical force was used on her daughter, who she said, had “nail marks cutting into her wrist.”

 According to Cota, she maintained contact with Finley “by gently holding onto her wrist,” the report said.

Kizer said Finley informed her that Cota threatened to put her in the room every time she was bad and she wondered how many times the district locked up Finley.

“Finley told me it happened more than once,” Kizer said. “She kept saying seven but with her having a cognitive learning disability, I don’t know if it happened that many times or she was threatened to be put in the room that many times.”

District staff contacted Kizer on March 5 and March 12 to discuss steps to help Finley move forward, according to HUSD emails.

But, according to Kizer, the efforts failed to help her daughter, who continued to be traumatized by what happened to her. 

She has become fearful, no longer trusts authority figures and “no longer knows the difference between discipline and abuse,” according to Kizer.

“I try to keep her focused as much as possible,” she said. “She has to go to therapy.”

 “She brought up she was a bad kid and she knew she was weird. I keep telling her she is not weird or bad. She got a hold of some tweezers and she wanted to cut herself with it but decided to pick at crayons. 

 “When my daughter returned back to school they tried to antagonize her unstable state and make it appear she was the problem,” Kizer said. “I pulled her from school and put her online.”

She said she will have Finley finish out the school year online and then plans to enroll her in a special-needs school in the fall.

Kizer said as a single-mom she doesn’t have the money to pursue legal action against the district. The district said only one person has complained in the last 10 years about the practice.

 In the meantime, Kizer has posted a 25-minute video of the incident on her Facebook page to alert other parents about the room.

  “I know it won’t change anything that happened with my daughter,” she said. But “I’m doing whatever I can to get the word out.”