Despite federal officials weighing in years ago, a new analysis finds rules surrounding restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities continue to vary from state to state.

Across the country, 38 states have legislation and 45 have policies on restraining or secluding kids at school, but the approaches are far from consistent, according to findings published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies.

Some states set limitations on the disciplinary practices only for students with disabilities. Four states appear to have no laws or policies on the issue. And, among those that do, just 16 reference an advisory document issued in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education designed to guide states on restraint and seclusion in schools.

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For the analysis, researchers conducted searches to identify any legislation or policies related to restraint and seclusion in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. in late summer 2013. They then evaluated each law or policy to determine how well it aligned with 15 guiding principles outlined by the Education Department.

In the resource document, federal officials indicated that policies on restraint and seclusion should apply to all children — not just those with disabilities — and included a prohibition on mechanical or chemical restraint and said that restraint and seclusion should never be used as punishment, among other conditions.

“Historically, limited guidance was provided to states with regard to restraint and seclusion of students. Presently, there are no existing federal mandates surrounding restraint and seclusion,” wrote researchers from the American Institutes for Research and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in their paper. “In the absence of federal legislation specific to restraint and seclusion, states often look for guidance about how to address specific areas of need.”

While 38 states had policies or laws aligned with the recommendation that physical restraint should only be used if a child is a danger to himself or others, just four states stipulated that policies be regularly reviewed and updated, as the Education Department encouraged, the review found.

Given the variation, states may want to revisit their legislation and policies, researchers said.

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