A group of national lawmakers reintroduced a proposal recently that would block schools nationally from secluding students in locked rooms or using certain types of physical restraints.

Though the bill, called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, faces long odds in a divided Congress, it has gained supporters this year, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who leads the Senate committee overseeing education and now backs the proposal.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that children across this country, disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities, face dangerous seclusion and restraint practices,” Sanders said. “It is our moral responsibility to ban these practices once and for all.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress since 2009 but has failed to pass.

In a news release announcing the proposed bill, lawmakers cited a year-long Hearst Newspapers investigation revealing that schools restrain and seclude special education students thousands of times a day and hundreds of thousands of times a year, sometimes resulting in serious injury or even death.

“It’s hard to believe, but there are thousands of kids who are being put in solitary confinement or having their hands bound as punishment for misbehavior at school,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. “These practices are downright dangerous and completely ineffective ways to address behavioral issues in the classroom.”

As part of the proposed bill, schools receiving federal money would not be permitted to seclude students or to restrain them unless necessary to protect student or staff safety. It would altogether ban restraint practices that restrict students’ breathing, such as prone or supine restraints and would offer training “to address school-expected behavior with evidence-based, proactive strategies.”

The proposal was reintroduced by a group that included Murphy, Sanders, Sen. Patty Murray D-Wash., and Reps. Don Beyer and Bobby Scott, Democrats from Virginia. Fourteen other Senate Democrats have cosponsored the bill, but no Republicans have signed on so far.

The proposal also has support from a wide array of disability rights advocacy groups, as well as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and parents groups including the National PTA.

“The evidence is clear that seclusion and restraint practices are not only ineffective and dangerous, but they are also disproportionately used against students of color and students with disabilities,” Denise Forte, CEO of The Education Trust, said in a statement. “Every child deserves to learn in a safe and healthy school environment, and to be protected from violent policies that threaten their physical and mental well-being.”

Still, not everyone agrees that federal restrictions around restraint and seclusion in schools are needed. Some educators believe the interventions are necessary to serve students with challenging disabilities, while others believe a patchwork of state laws governing the practices are sufficient and help maintain local control of schools.

Over the last decade, the country’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, which boasts 3 million members, has remained “neutral” on proposed federal legislation: the association didn’t lobby for or against it, according to congressional aides and national advocates. The NEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Hearst Newspapers.

The nation’s second largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, changed its position from “neutral” to supportive last year. But the AFT has not officially endorsed the new bill.

“Physical restraint should be used only when there is imminent danger of injury, and only when imposed by trained staff,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told Hearst Newspapers in a rare public statement on the issue last year. “Secluding students should never be allowed, nor should mechanical restraints.”

Weingarten said teachers need funding to support professional development on the use of restraint and seclusion, emergency planning and other supports.

“Finally, we need to be sure data is collected on the number of staff injured as a result of restraining students who posed a danger to themselves or others,” she said.

AFT declined further comment when the latest bill was introduced.

A congressional aide who requested not to be named said discussions with AFT and NEA about the proposal are ongoing.

The American Association of School Administrators has opposed efforts to pass a federal law, noting that most states already have laws governing the practices. The group said recently that its position had not changed.

Hearst Newspapers’ investigation found state laws vary widely regarding the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Even in states with laws governing how the interventions can be used, “lack of oversight and accountability have resulted in egregious violations, leaving students subject to a pattern of abuse,” a coalition of 17 state attorneys general wrote to Congress in 2021, urging lawmakers to pass federal legislation.

© 2023 Times Union
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.