Parents complain about Berkeley School District’s use of weighted vests on students

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The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, has been using weighted vests on some of its students. Some parents, such as Carlos Pennington, are not happy about it.

During the public comment section of the Jan. 10 board meeting, Pennington complained about teacher Erika Englund’s use of a weighted vest on his 5-year-old daughter in a LeConte Elementary School classroom.

BUSD spokesperson Charles Burress confirmed that the district uses weighted vests. Weighted vests are stretchy outerwear that can be weighed down through the placement of weights inside pockets in the vest.

BUSD uses vests produced by Fun and Function, a company that produces special needs toys, clothes and tools. The company’s website claims that the vests are “perfect for helping to calm down, focus or cope with sensory overload.” Fun and Function’s vests can add up to 2 pounds to the child’s body, according to the company’s website.

“We have the vests for special education,” said BUSD Vice President Judy Appel. “We have different tools to help with different students’ conditions to support them, so I believe that that’s what (the vests are) about.”

Pennington’s daughter currently attends transitional kindergarten at LeConte Elementary. During the public comment section of the meeting, Pennington alleged that his daughter had been subjected to harassment and abuse, both physical and mental, at the hands of her teacher.

Englund and Principal of LeConte Elementary Veronica Valerio could not be reached for comment.

During the meeting, Pennington alleged that his daughter’s teacher has persistently thrown away his daughter’s food, and that his daughter had her “hand squeezed to the point where… (she) had to (be taken) to the doctor.”

One of his main concerns was the use of a weighted vest on his child.

“I don’t know how a kid is supposed to go to school, be ostracized like that, be made the pariah of a classroom because she has on a vest that is for discipline,” Pennington said during the meeting. “I’ve never heard of anything like that before in my life.”

Burress asserted that while the vests are used, they are never used for punishment. Rather, Burress said, they function to improve a student’s ability to focus.

“The vests have a calming effect, and give students the input the student is craving,” Burress said. “(They) allow the student to participate in academic activity.”

Buress explained that the vests are typically worn for a duration of 30 minutes. He stated that in other districts, these vests are commonly used for students, and the results of using the vests have been in line with the intended use.

Before a child is put in the vest, however, the school must obtain consent from the child’s parent, Burress said. Typically, a therapist would also be involved in making the initial recommendation for use of the vest.

Englund told Valerio that she had been given verbal consent by Pennington and the mother of his daughter, Carissa London. London and Pennington have conflicting memories about when, how and if they gave their consent, as reported by Berkeleyside.

These conflicting stories surrounding parental consent ultimately resulted in a policy change at LeConte Elementary, in which written consent must be obtained from the family before using a weighted vest on the child, as reported by Berkeleyside.

Pennington stated during the meeting that he has contacted the state to investigate the matter.

Shayann Hendricks covers race and diversity. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.