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Report Prompts Renewed Push To Limit Restraint, Seclusion


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Widespread use of restraint and seclusion in the nation’s schools is putting kids with disabilities at risk and current laws offer families little recourse, a U.S. Senate investigation finds.

A 54-page report from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unveiled Wednesday documents 10 cases where students have experienced restraint or seclusion at school. Among them are the story of a 12-year-old Florida boy with developmental disabilities who was restrained 89 times in 14 months without his parents’ knowledge and the case of a 14-year-old in Georgia who committed suicide after being repeatedly secluded at school.

The findings were issued as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced plans to introduce federal legislation to limit the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, practices which data suggest are most frequently used on students with disabilities.

Currently, Harkin said that there are laws to protect individuals in jails and hospitals but there are no nationwide standards for schools.

“This report shows in stark detail that families whose children are being subjected to dangerous seclusion and restraint practices have little or no recourse through school procedures or through the courts,” said Harkin, who likened seclusion rooms at schools to cells he saw at Guantanamo Bay which he said are reserved for “the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”

“These practices provide no educational benefit, yet unsupervised seclusion and physical restraints are being used thousands of time each year against our nation’s school children,” the senator said.

Harkin’s bill — which is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. — would prohibit children from being secluded in locked, unattended rooms and bar the use of medication or other chemical restraints as well as mechanical restraints like belts or duct tape. Under the proposal, physical restraint could only be used in emergency situations. (Read all of Disability Scoop’s coverage of restraint and seclusion »)

The measure is an attempt to remedy numerous issues uncovered in the committee report. Investigators found that families were frequently not told about the use of restraint or seclusion on their child and struggled to obtain information from schools regarding exactly what methods were used and for how long.

Even in cases where children were harmed, the report indicates that families had few options. What’s more, investigators said that parents often struggle to overcome a presumption that schools have acted appropriately.

Harkin’s bill would alter the law so that families could take more timely legal action and the measure would require schools to notify parents if restraint is used. Under the legislation, states would also be required to collect and disseminate data on use of restraint and seclusion and establish policies and procedures to prevent emergency situations from arising.

The bill introduced by Harkin on Wednesday is similar to one proposed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. So far, Miller’s proposal has failed to generate traction in the Republican-controlled House and a spokeswoman for the body’s Committee on Education and the Workforce said there are no plans currently to consider it.

Harkin said his bill is backed by more than 200 advocacy groups across the country including Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy, The Arc, Autism Speaks and the National Down Syndrome Society.

However, the effort faces opposition from school leaders. In a joint statement, officials with the National School Boards Association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, called Harkin’s bill a “federal overreach” and said that restraint and seclusion are only used as a last resort.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Laurie says:

    As I have said many times in the years past, Senator Harkin is a champion for those with disabilities. I agree with him 100%. How in the world could schools argue that parents should not be informed of their child being restrained or secluded at school? What could be a reasonable explanation for keeping that secret? Many times a child with a disability can’t tell a parent what has occurred. I hate that Senator Harkin is retiring.

  2. Scott Badesch says:

    The Autism Society is also strongly behind this bill. We are also asking individuals to ask their Superintendents and board members why they are part of a national effort to not have this bill passed. It is your tax dollars being used by your school districts (through payment of dues) in supporting the effort to not have an important Restraint and Seclusion Bill.

  3. Susan Woolner says:

    Thank you, Senator Harkin for continuing to be a champion for those with disabilities and their families. We became aware that this was happening to our son only after we saw behavior changes in our son at home and a genuine terror about boarding a school bus. A surprise visit to the school found our son restrained and in seclusion. Horrifying and terrifying that the school could continue to do this without notifying us. It was tantamount to school sanctioned child abuse.

  4. Michael Waddell says:

    The apparently widespread use—and lack of requirement for reporting—of these tactics is very disturbing. Let’s hope that Sen. Harkin and his colleagues are able to change the law. In the meantime, perhaps advocates for children with disabilities should begin to publicize the names of schools and school officials who use these tactics and do not inform families that they are being used.

  5. M. Spengler says:

    If our legislators would look carefully at existing legislation of the IDEA II, they would find much of this language present. The Hughes Bill, sections on reporting and training for those involved was just repealed by AB 86, which not turns the issues back to the district to apply under IDEA regulation.
    If legislators were more interested in the welfare of the children they represent, than in authoring new legislation to reflect well in the next election, perhaps parents and educational personnel could put things on an even keel with the needs of all children as our focus. I am a democrat, so this is a-political.

  6. Sarah Lynch says:

    Restraints and Seclusion in Schools-

    Law needed to required documentation anytime physical management is used on a student. Documentation should mirror the required documentation the MASS DOE requires for restraints lasting 20 minutes or more, however, I believe this document should be required for any type of phyical management for anyperiod of time. In addition, if physical management is used frequently, it is a sign the program and staff are no appropriate for the student and a law should required a parent to terminate the placement and receive appropriate support. Too many schools – public and private 98% or more do not have the trained staff and expertise to manage children with autism with behavioral challenges. The outcome of restraint and seclusion tells us there is a problem with the program. Schools also unfortunately hire support staff with little to no knowledge. The law should fund legal attorneys for any parent/caregiver that needs advocacy when dealing with restraing and seclusion and are at odds with school districts – public and private. Cameras should be allowed recording for both families and outside service provides so that they can see the unfortunate low quality of programming that is taking place. I am a professional educator and have personally toured many schools for children with autism and stand by what I have observed and belive is needed as stated above.

  7. Teresa Daniel says:

    My son in the beginning of school was in one of those classes. I think it was so damaging to him. He was so young. The teacher didn’t want me in the classroom. I mean isn’t that what an IEP is for? Now he is in Lakes high school with many things left undone. We need counseling. Can you help us? I mean for both of us. Neuro feed back is what I’m looking for , for my son.

  8. David Richter says:

    Most of what is in this proposal already exists. If schools restrain properly and do what they are supposed to (admittedly many don’t) this is exactly what is already happening. I was in an autism classroom where we had to restrain many times for the safety of students and/or staff. At the end of each restraint incident a form was filled out and was required sent to the district compliance and monitoring department and the Office of Civil Rights within 24 hours. After a certain number other steps kicked in (for example after 5 you are to re-convene the IEP). On this same form is a spot where you must indicate when and by what method the parent was notified.

  9. Joan Mitchell says:

    I have a now; 21 year old Down syndrome daughter that suffered long term emotional distress, while in high school here in Escambia County Florida. She was frequently placed in a dark closet with the door closed for an entire school term. It was not until the incidents were reported by interpreters visiting in the classroom (on a regular basis); that we found out. The reasons for the teachers actions as she stated; was because my daughter was non responsive. (she didn’t talk very much). There was very little done to the teacher and nothing to the aides responsible. After months of therapy following the abuse; my daughter still has emotional problems and still burst in tears when she passes Washington High School!

  10. JMorgan says:

    …but of course Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa would support such legislation. After all, as a democrat, it’s about the bill rather than what is right for the people. There are those who are so volatile and dangerous that in order to protect themselves and others, CPI is a necessity. BUT…Tommy probably doesn’t really know what that is, does he??

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