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Local and National Policymakers Struggle With Ways to Keep Students From Hurting Themselves and Others

Illustration Credit: 123rf stock image

One boy’s mother says he spends entire days at school alone in a room with no windows and the door closed so no one can see him. School staff say he has issues with touching people too often — including high fives and hugs — and so must be separated from his classmates.

Another mother of a local child says her daughter suffered a shoulder sprain, bruises and scrapes when she was dragged to a school bus by two teachers not trained in how to restrain a child without injury.

Both children are public school students in the Kansas City metropolitan area, and both are students with disabilities.

Although any student acting out at school could be subject to restraint and seclusion, special education students are most likely to be treated this way. And this is not just a local problem.

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions called national attention to this issue by holding a hearing, “Beyond Seclusion and Restraint: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Students.”

According to one witness at today’s hearing, “The use of seclusion and restraint is widespread.” Daniel Crimmons, director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, went on to say, “New data from the U.S. Department of Education shows there were nearly 40,000 incidents of restraint with children during the 2009-2010 school year, with nearly 70 percent of those incidents occurring with students with disabilities and a disproportionate number being African American and Hispanic students. These techniques are not limited to a handful of schools or even a handful of states. They are being used widely by school personnel who too often are not trained to use them safely and who are not adequately trained in positive strategies to guide behavior.”

Because of lack of consistent training for teachers, the Kansas State Board of Education this spring proposed a regulation governing seclusion and restraint that — if it receives final approval — will have the force of law. The proposed regulation is currently under review by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. If he gives the go-ahead, then the state board will hold a public hearing to receive input about the proposed regulation from advocates and experts.

Two years ago, Missouri’s General Assembly passed a law requiring school districts to develop policies regarding the use of seclusion and restraint.

As recently as three years ago, injuries resulting from improper use of seclusion and restraint were thought to be isolated incidents. However, the National Disability Rights Network called attention to this problem with their 2009 report — School is Not Supposed to Hurt — “a disturbing trend is emerging that threatens to deny these students the full and safe inclusion in the education system so vital to their success as adults in our society.” And they called for a ban on seclusion and restraint as well as improved teacher training.

Because some student behavior can threaten their safety and that of others, many educators say that there will always be a need for school staff to know how to properly use seclusion and restraint. Others, however — such as Crimmons in his testimony before the Senate committee today — prefer to encourage the use of conflict management, de-escalation and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

A few months after the National Disability Rights Network released its report, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its own — “Seclusions and Restraints; Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers” — confirming the seriousness of the issue.

The federal report read, in part: “Examples of these cases include a 7 year old purportedly dying after being held face down for hours by school staff, 5 year olds allegedly being tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teacher and suffering broken arms and bloody noses, and a 13 year old reportedly hanging himself in a seclusion room after prolonged confinement.”

Prior to the 1970s, public school teachers did not need training in how to manage the challenging behavior of students with disabilities. Such students usually did not attend public schools. They either remained at home or were institutionalized. Efforts in recent years to include disabled students in regular classes whenever possible has increased the need for teachers and staff members to be knowledgeable about proper uses of seclusion and restraint.

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Art Credit: KC Education Enterprise | Photo Credit: Dreamstime

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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