Non-profit disability advocate group TASH published a study that analyzes news reports on the negative effect of seclusion and restraint on students with disabilities, which the organization says is proof that federal legislation is necessary to restrict such practices in schools.
Seclusion and restraint is a term that describes emergency strategies used by educators to calm student outbursts through either isolation or physical intervention. Examples can include forcibly strapping a child to a chair, locking them in a closet or pinning them face down on the ground. Proponents say seclusion and restraint have helped to advance the disabled education movement by granting access to students who otherwise would need to be institutionalized or home-schooled. But, opponents argue the practices are unnecessary and can cause injury, humiliation or other harm, whereas positive behavior intervention has much better results.
"The Cost of Waiting" is the second such report from TASH in the past year that examines cases of seclusion and restraint that may result in permanent injury, trauma or death of a student. The report relies on several news reports nationwide. Last year, TASH published results from a study it conducted with 1,300 parents and caretakers of children with disabilities in 48 states, D.C. and two U.S. territories on seclusion and restraint procedures. In it, 65 percent of respondents claimed their children had been subjected to seclusion, restraint or other "aversive procedures." Nearly 70 percent of these children were between 6 and 10 years old.
“At this moment, there are thousands of children at risk of being needlessly traumatized, injured or killed by these practices,” said Barb Trader, executive director of TASH. “There are real consequences if we don’t act now, and the best solution on the table is federal legislation that says ‘no’ to abusing children in schools.”
Seclusion and restraint in the school bus environment differs significantly from that in the classroom. Peggy A. Burns, an attorney and owner of Education Compliance Group, said lawsuits centering on false imprisonment on the school bus are being filed, and she cited several examples in the past few years. Though school districts have had such cases decided in their favor, she cautioned that schools must do everything in their power to avoid being dragged into court in the first place.
“False imprisonment is a term we’d never think about in terms of the school bus environment, but it’s a real claim,” she told STN. “School districts should continue to win, but it’s a stressful situation.”
She pointed out in this month’s edition of the Legal Routes newsletter that schools should also make all transportation decisions based on the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), and those decisions must be “deemed necessary for the safe transport of the child.” This includes practices that could be deemed as seclusion or restraint. She added that transportation personnel should also not dismiss the restraint issue simply because it is a completely different practice than that of providing child safety restraint systems (CSRS) on school bus seats.
Linda Bluth, the lead monitoring and quality assurance specialist with the Maryland Department of Education and the immediate past-president of NAPT, said the use of CSRS should only be made on a case-by-case basis and be included in the section documenting transportation as a related service of the student’s IEP. She also recommended that transporters discuss with special educators the implications for the use of CSRS on school buses as well as educate parents on the difference between the restraint systems and restraint used for behavior intervention.
Meanwhile, in April, the Autism National Committee published its own analysis of state seclusion and restraint policies in the report “How Safe is the School House?” It concluded that the practices may have additional unintended consequences due to the lack of training for teachers and other school staff on how to handle severe behavioral disorders and best apply physical restraint procedures. The report found that 30 states regulate seclusion and restraint, but the provisions can vary.
“Restraint and seclusion not only expose children to danger but escalate behaviors and lead to a cycle of violence,” wrote Jessica Butler, report author and congressional affairs coordinator for the Autism National Committee. “By contrast, positive interventions, conflict resolution and de-escalation resolve difficult situations and help prevent and reduce the utilization of restraint and seclusion.”
In December, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) reintroduced the "Keeping All Students Safe Act," but it has yet to be referred to committee. The legislation arose from a 2009 recommendation by the National Disability Rights Network to limit the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, which was passed the House in March 2010 but not taken up by the Senate.
The American Association of School Administrators opposes Harkin's bill. Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, said seclusion and restraint has actually enabled thousands of students with serious emotional and behavioral disabilities to attend public school. The unintended consequence of limiting schools’ ability to use seclusion and restraint, he argued, is that such students might be withdrawn from school because of their conditions.
The association also published member survey results earlier this year in which 25 percent said their schools had recorded 20 or more incidents in a given school year of a staff member being physically threatened or attacked by a student with special needs. Within a five-year period, 30 percent reported that at least five such incidents required medical attention for the staff member.
In the May edition of eSchool News, Domenech wrote that AASA is concerned Harkin's bill might cause school staff to hesitate to "act on a timely basis" when anticipating if special needs students’ behavior will result in serious bodily injury to themselves, another student or a staff member.
"If the staff person did not act, will he or she then be subjected to disciplinary action and a probable lawsuit?" Domenech asked in the May edition eSchool News. "This is a no-win situation. As it stands now, the technique is used to prevent injuries, not to determine the extent of possible injury in the aftermath of an incident."
Domenech also wrote that Harkin’s bill would prohibit the inclusion of seclusion and restraint in the IEP, which he added could lead to confusion and conflict between parents and schools on what actions, if any, can be taken in the event of a violent behavioral episode.
Attorney Burns said any legislation limiting seclusion and restraint should include perspectives from child behavioral experts to determine the best positive intervention strategies for behavior change in emergencies. She added that increased education and awareness is necessary while cautioning that legislation must not “set back the whole disability movement.”
The U.S. Department of Education has required since the 2009-2010 school year that all states have policies in place for handling seclusion and restraint in schools. Last year, the DOE published findings that indicate students with disabilities are the population most often subjected to seclusion and restraint and that gender and racial disparities are also apparent. On May 15, the department also published evidence-based recommendations on how schools can limit and prevent the need of seclusion and restraint practices.
Read more on this topic in the May 2012 edition of School Transportation News.