Parents of a child at LeConte Elementary’s transitional kindergarten have complained that their daughter was forced to wear a weighted vest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Parents of a child at LeConte Elementary’s transitional kindergarten have complained that their daughter was forced to wear a weighted vest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a Berkeley School Board meeting in early January, a parent made a disturbing comment about his daughter’s experience in a transitional kindergarten classroom at LeConte Elementary.

Carlos Pennington said his five-year-old daughter had been punished by being forced to wear a weighted vest in class, and made other allegations of abuse.

“I don’t know how a kid is supposed to go to school and be ostracized like that, and be made the pariah of a classroom because she has on a vest that is for discipline,” said Pennington, a graduate of Berkeley schools himself.  His daughter stood by his side at the meeting, the top of her head barely reaching above the podium.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that before in my life,” Pennington said.

Weighted compression vests are stretchy outerwear with pockets that can be loaded with small weights, and Berkeley Unified does, in fact, own about 20. But the district says they are not used for discipline at Berkeley schools. Instead, their purpose is “to assist with a student’s ability to attend to tasks and maintain better control over the student’s body during classroom tasks (such as engaging in tabletop activities). Wearing a weighted vest has a calming impact on the body,” said BUSD spokesman Charles Burress, in an email to Berkeleyside.

The district uses colorful vests from the company Fun and Function, which describes what they provide as “a reassuring hug, perfect for helping to calm down, focus or cope with sensory overload.” They are often given to kids on the autism spectrum, those with attention deficit disorders or children with any difficulties with sensory processing.

“They are fairly common,” in schools, though typically either a compression vest or a weighted vest — not the combined weighted compression vest used by BUSD — is strategically selected, said Rondalyn Whitney, a spokeswoman with the American Occupational Therapy Association and director of faculty, scholarship and development at West Virginia University, where she teaches occupational therapy.

The compression function “goes to the nervous system and produces a calming effect,” Whitney said. “It goes to our swaddling system. The weighted vest goes into the joints and muscles. The outcome we’re looking for is increased on-task or socially-appropriate behaviors. That’s the therapeutic rationale in a nutshell. The goal is for the child to have less things they can be stressed about so they can learn and grow.”

In Berkeley schools, the vests are loaded with weights equivalent to around 10% of the student’s body weight, according to the district. National Autism Resources, a vendor of occupational therapy devices, recommends using weights that are five to 10% of a child’s weight. Burress said the district follows professional standards, which advise that a vest should be worn, under adult observation, for 30 minutes, then taken off for an hour before it’s used again.

But Pennington and his daughter’s mother, Carissa London, said these benefits were not formally presented to them before the vest was put on their child.

The family’s experience has brought up larger questions about teachers’, schools’ and the district’s communication with families. How much parental permission is sought — and how much should be — when educators want to address what they see as students’ needs? What cracks in the process allowed the parents and school to reach a point where one viewed the vest as punishment and the other as a support mechanism? How much say do parents have in their child’s experience in class?

In this case, Pennington and London felt like their daughter was being pathologized. The child was one of the few African American students in her class, they said, in a district where the black population has declined significantly in recent years. The use of the vest and other treatment, including being told by the teacher not to pack sugary foods in their daughter’s lunch, led the parents to feel condescended to, and like their child was being targeted in part because of her race.

They said they did not agree with her educators’ assessment that the child had behavioral needs that would warrant the use of occupational therapy devices. The student does not have an IEP, or Individualized Education Program, a formal plan that describes how schools must accommodate students with special needs.

The weighted compression vests used by BUSD are designed to help kids with sensory overload. Photo: Fun and Function

In a complaint filed with the district, the parents cited several ways they felt their daughter was treated poorly by the teacher and the LeConte administration, mentioning the vest and other grievances. When Berkeleyside asked the teacher and Principal Veronica Valerio for comment, Valerio referred us to the district.

As for the vest specifically, “It felt like she didn’t want her to move around and be a kid,” London told Berkeleyside. “She’s supposed to be active.”

There is disagreement about whether the parents gave permission for the vest to be used. In a letter sent to the parents on Jan. 12, two days after Pennington’s public comment at the School Board meeting — he had emailed a complaint to the district on Dec. 1, 2017 —  Valerio laid out the results of her investigation, with Director of Schools Maggie Riddle, into the allegations.

Valerio wrote that the teacher told her Pennington, and later London, gave her verbal permission to use the vest when each of them picked up their child after school. London and Pennington each have different memories about how, when and if that occurred, recalling that at least one of them had not yet provided consent before the vest was used for the first time. According to the letter, the teacher immediately stopped using the vest after Pennington sent her a text message asking her to stop.

The parents were told a licensed occupational therapist at LeConte had recommended the use of the weighted vest to the teacher.

“She felt the need for an occupational therapist to come in and assess our daughter without our knowledge,” London said. “We hadn’t signed anything,” or discussed it with adults at the school, she said.

But is such an assessment problematic, or a violation of district policy?

BUSD Special Education Director Lisa Graham declined to speak directly with Berkeleyside. But the district emailed us answers to questions about occupational therapy policy and practices.

“Any formal Special Education evaluation requires written consent,” Burress wrote. “However, any specialist (psychologist, behavior specialist, [occupational therapist], [speech language pathologists], etc.) may collaborate with site staff to provide recommendations or classroom strategies or other support accommodations, which do not require parent/guardian consent.”

In addition to administering IEPs, “occupational therapists also consult with teachers with suggestions and supplies that could assist students, whether or not a given student has an IEP. These could include use of various devices, such as headphones, pencil grips, adaptive seating, etc.,” the district said.

Educators are allowed to use the vests after receiving either written or verbal permission from parents.

“Some districts have a letter that an occupational therapist might send home to give you some information about this,” Whitney said. “Sending a letter home is good manners. Our license requires us to use best practices. I think parents are wise to raise the question.”

That level of permission or communication is not required, but can prevent issues that often arise when there is a poor parent-teacher relationship or when sensitive issues about student behavior come up, she said. “We always have liability show up when we’ve dropped out some relationship,” she said. “We get policy when we’ve dropped out good procedure.”

The communication and consent issues raised by Pennington and London’s experience prompted the LeConte administration to ultimately change its policy around the use of the vests.

“Your complaint made me aware of the potential for misunderstandings with assumed verbal consent, and accordingly I have directed the occupational therapist to provide a written consent form that must be discussed with, read and signed by all families to initiate a student’s trial period using a weighted vest,” Valerio wrote in the letter to the parents. She said she’d also told the specialist to make sure the administration received copies of the signed consent forms.

“I hope that these actions will help to ensure improved communications between the staff and parents regarding the use of these types of potential supports,” she wrote.

The letter also responded to the parents’ request to transfer their daughter out of LeConte. In the past couple weeks, the student has returned to King Child Development Center, one of BUSD’s preschools, which she had attended before enrolling in transitional kindergarten. She had a good time at the school in the past and is doing well there again, London said. She and Pennington are deciding whether to keep her in Berkeley public schools or to apply for a charter school in Oakland for kindergarten.

Ed. note: This story previously named the teacher described in the article. The teacher’s name was removed in September 2019. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...