The U.S. Department of Education weighed in on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools Tuesday with a 45-page resource document, but stopped short of issuing formal guidance to educators.

The move marks the most detailed instruction to date from federal education officials about the practices which have become highly controversial in recent years.

The issue came to the forefront after a 2009 advocacy group report uncovered widespread abuse and even deadly examples of restraint and seclusion in schools — most involving students with disabilities — problems which were later confirmed in a government report as well.

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Since that time, disability advocates have pressed Congress to enact federal standards on the use of restraint and seclusion, but such efforts have sputtered.

The Education Department document released Tuesday outlines 15 principles to guide educators and other stakeholders in the creation of policies surrounding the use of restraint and seclusion. It emphasizes the importance of preventive measures and indicates that restraint and seclusion should never be used as punishment. The federal document also highlights the need for staff training and communication with parents about any use of the practices.

“Ultimately, the standard for educators should be the same standard that parents use for their own children,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “There is a difference between a brief time out in the corner of a classroom to help a child calm down and locking a child in an isolated room for hours. This really comes down to common sense.”

Federal officials said they disseminated the new document to stakeholder groups and posted it on their website, but would not actively distribute it to all of the nation’s school districts since it’s not official guidance. Rather, a Department of Education spokesman called the document “thoughtful encouragement.”

While pleased to see the Obama administration addressing the issue of restraint and seclusion, some disability advocates said they were disappointed that officials didn’t go farther. (Read all of Disability Scoop’s coverage of restraint and seclusion ยป)

“I think overall it’s positive, but it could have been stronger,” said Barb Trader, executive director of TASH, who has led efforts by several disability advocacy groups to urge federal regulation of the practices.

Specifically, Trader said she appreciated the department’s focus on prevention, but wished the document more clearly articulated that restraint and seclusion should only be used in emergencies and said she had hoped to see a bigger premium put on working toward eliminating the practices.

“It’s disappointing to us that it didn’t come through as clear guidance. I think it would be taken much more seriously by districts,” she said.

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