Efforts to establish federal limits on the use of restraint and seclusion in the nation’s schools appear to be dead, at least for now, disability advocates are acknowledging.

In a meeting last week, Senate staffers who worked on legislation designed to curb the use of restraint and seclusion told representatives of several disability advocacy groups and education organizations that time had run out and the bill would not be voted on before the end of the year, according to a Senate aide and advocates who attended.

The news comes nearly a year after lawmakers introduced legislation that would have established first ever federal oversight of restraint and seclusion tactics in schools following a series of reports highlighting hundreds of cases of abusive and even deadly uses of the practices.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“Our assumption is that the new Congress will be our target for this,” said Barb Trader, executive director of TASH who’s taken the lead in advocating for the measure. “There’s simply just not time.”

The bill was contentious from the start with some groups representing educators publicly opposing the measure, saying that limiting restraint and seclusion could compromise school safety.

The real trouble emerged in October, however, when a new version of the bill was introduced in the Senate with compromise language that led to a split among disability advocacy groups.

The original legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives in March would have prohibited restraint and seclusion from being included in a student’s individualized education plan, or IEP. But in efforts to secure a Republican co-sponsor for the Senate bill, a revised version called for restraint and seclusion to be allowed in IEPs in cases where students have a two-year history of behaviors that create an “imminent danger of serious bodily injury in school.”

Changes to the IEP provision became a “sticking point,” said Maureen Fitzgerald, policy director for disability rights at the Disability Policy Collaboration, who attended the recent meeting with Senate staffers. “Some in the disability community could live with that and some felt very strongly that it should not be in the IEP.”

Advocates are now working together again to push for new language that will form the basis of a renewed effort for federal restraint and seclusion legislation next year, says TASH’s Trader, though she declined to share specifics. (Read all of Disability Scoop’s coverage of restraint and seclusion >>)

First, however, supporters of the bill must find a new Democrat in the Senate to spearhead efforts, since the measure’s main sponsor, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is retiring. Advocates say Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who joined Dodd as a co-sponsor this fall remains interested in the issue, but presenting a bipartisan bill has always been a priority.

If Congress does decide to revisit restraint and seclusion next year, it will have to be considered by both the House and Senate and it could be combined into a larger bill.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee where restraint and seclusion legislation would be considered, would like to see the issue addressed within an upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, according to committee spokeswoman Justine Sessions.

Advocates say they aren’t sure what to expect from new members of Congress, but they are optimistic.

“We’re hoping that the restraint and seclusion of children is a bipartisan issue,” says Fitzgerald of the Disability Policy Collaboration.