BROOKSVILLE — Terri Zieschang started getting calls to pick up her son from Moton Elementary School in 2016, the year her family moved to Hernando County for a new start.
A fourth-grader with autism and a slew of other behavioral and health complications, Kobbi was having outbursts regularly in class. Sometimes, he tried to run away from campus.
"He would come home and tell me that they held him down, and I didn't believe him," the mother said. "I was told he would get what he needed there."
After two more years of similar instances — both at Moton and West Hernando Middle School, where she said her son was once handcuffed and charged with battery after an altercation with another student — Zieschang decided it was time to leave.
She enrolled Kobbi and her two other sons in Clay County schools this year, and is working with a new teacher to undo the damage she feels was done by his experiences in Hernando.
"I blame a lot of his behaviors now on those situations," she said, "because prior to coming to Hernando County, he never had to be restrained."
Representatives for Hernando's Exceptional Student Education department, which oversees programs for students with disabilities, declined to comment specifically on the Zieschang family's story.
Two years ago, Cathy Dofka presented Hernando School Board members with a hefty goal. As head of the district's Exceptional Student Education department, she had a plan to cut in half the number of times special needs students were restrained because of behavior problems.
Restraint is defined by the Florida Department of Education as "physical force that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs or head freely." It is considered an "emergency intervention" used when students exhibit disruptive or danger behavior, and in most classroom instances, mechanical devices are not used.
At the time of Dofka's presentation, the most recent records available showed 19 incidents for the 2014-15 school year, meaning the district would aim for eight in the following year.
But when she came before officials a year later, the number had climbed dramatically, to 92. Records show the department made some headway in 2016-17, as the number of incidents fell to 70. But last year, use of restraints more than doubled to 153.
Hernando schools enroll about 3,500 special-needs students a year, according to district records.
Dofka told the Tampa Bay Times, as she told School Board members, that the primary reason for the increase in restraint use is the lack of qualified teachers in Hernando's special-needs classrooms. Of the district's 209 special-needs positions, 16 were unfilled last year. Currently, there are 14.
"People aren't going into teaching, let alone going into exceptional student education," Dofka said. "It's a critical shortage."
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On top of that, students today are coming to school with greater needs, she said, and the salaries for those jobs aren't drawing applicants.
Open positions in Hernando's special needs classrooms often are filled by substitutes or aides, Dofka said, who aren't trained or experienced enough to de-escalate behavioral situations.
"You have to know how to read a student, know what might trigger them ... You have to know how to handle students not only academically, but behaviorally," she added. "It's hard for people who aren't trained to really understand."
Hernando schools superintendent John Stratton said long-term substitutes placed in the district's special needs classrooms receive some specialized training by Kelly Services, the company that provides the district with substitutes.
"But it is not to the extent of what an ESE-educated teacher receives as part of their college courses," he added.
Kelly Services representatives did not respond to multiple calls from the Times for comment.
"This is not unique to Hernando County," Stratton said. "The shortage includes many areas, in addition to ESE."
Children are restrained when all other options to control them have been exhausted and there is "an imminent risk of serious injury or death to the student or others," according to state guidelines, which require school districts to report incidents of restraint to parents and the state department.
"It is a very last resort," Dofka said.
Compared to other Florida districts, Hernando falls in the middle for how frequently students are restrained, state records show. Even in Clay County, which shares Hernando's size ranking and is where Zieschang moved her son, numbers have fluctuated.
In the 2016-17 school year, incidents of restraint there more than doubled Hernando's, totaling 177, records show.
Many restraint incidents in Hernando involve the same students, Dofka said. Records show the district's 92 restraint incidents in 2015-16 involved 40 students. In 2016-17, 30 students accounted for 70 restraints. And 39 students accounted for last year's 153.
Special-needs students act out when they can't figure out how to communicate, said Terri Cooper, project manager for the Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities Network, established by the state in 1981. She provides training and other services to Hernando's special-needs students and staff.
Cooper said some students' disabilities prevent them from coping with stress in a healthy way, which can result in an outburst.
"Often it isn't willful disobedience ... it's a kid that's displaying a dysregulated stress response," she said. "If we could get teachers with that mindset, we would have less restraint."
State representatives who reviewed Hernando's restraint data approved Dofka's goal to reduce restraint use by 10 percent this year, she said.
As promised in her presentation to the School Board, she said her team is working to reduce the number by providing more training to school staff.
But it's an uphill climb.
For years, Dofka has recommended that all teachers of special-needs students undergo training by the Crisis Prevention Institute, which teaches de-escalation methods and certifies trainees to perform restraints.
Only 163 district employees have received the training, she said, and the majority are administrators. All principals are trained.
For teachers who aren't trained, a student meltdown can be overwhelming, Cooper said. The state's threshold for restraint can be interpreted differently depending on a teacher's qualification and experience.
"It's a high threshold," she said. "The people sitting in the Legislature that make these rules are not sitting in the classroom."
Cooper said to her knowledge, Hernando has never been notified by the state of an inappropriate restraint.
"There are procedures that we have in place that come down from the state," Dofka said. "We follow them to a T."
Dofka's plan last year recommended that each Hernando school have a crisis team, "but not all of them do," she said. It's up to school administrators to follow her department's recommendations, but there is no district oversight in place to make sure that happens.
"All we can do is give them the best practice," Cooper sad. "And I don't think the ESE department has the teeth to enforce it."
Reducing restraints is a work in progress, Dofka said. "We haven't finished all the pieces."
The battery charges against Kobbi were dropped by the State Attorney's Office once he completed a diversionary program, records show. And since arriving at Wilkinson Junior High in Clay County, his behavior has improved, his mother said.
There are only six kids in his seventh-grade class, and his teacher has been in her role for 15 years.
"That's how it's supposed to be," Zieschang said. "That's what should have happened back then."
Dofka said she is doing what she can with the resources she has. Her plan for this year involves making positive behavior training more accessible at more schools, and working with teams from the University of Florida and University of South Florida to offer more support services to students with disabilities.
"I don't have all the answers, and my staff doesn't have all the answers," she said. "We are trying to get assistance on changing our way of work. We are trying to do what's best for all students."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.