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'It's Barbaric.' Lawmakers Probe Restraint and Seclusion Ahead of Legislation


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Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle spent a House hearing Wednesday exploring how prevalent restraint and seclusion is in schools, alternatives to those practices, and the proper role of the federal government regarding the issue. 

The House education subcommittee hearing Wednesday, which focused on the "inappropriate use" of restraint and seclusion and highlighted testimony from a teacher and a parent, as well as a representative from the Government Accountability Office and a university professor. 

There was a bigger context for the hearing: Democrats plan to introduce legislation next month that would ban public schools from placing students in isolation or otherwise secluding students, and place major restrictions on when students can be physically restrained. (The bill's provisions would in fact extend to all schools receiving federal funds; Democrats previously introduced this legislation toward the end of the last Congress.) However, some educators are not enthusiastic about having the practices banned or severely restricted, and argue that they must prioritize creating safe learning environments and deal with potentially dangerous situations quickly. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced a push to reduce the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion on students with disabilities

Nationwide, 61,000 students, roughly 0.1 percent of K-12 public school students, were physically restrained in the 2013-14 school year, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection for that year. However, Jacqueline Nowicki, the director of education, workforce, and income security at the Government Accountability Office who has studied restraint and seclusion, told lawmakers Wednesday that while 12 percent of students have disabiliites, those students represent 75 percent of all students who were restrained and close to 60 percent of students who were secluded. 

"Nationally the use of restraint and seclusion is very rare," Nowicki said.

But when it does happen, said George Sugai, a University of Connecticut professor, the consequences can be significant: "They do not develop or maintain positive relationships with others. They do not enhance their capacity to function in more normalized environments." Sugai also stressed that students should not be restrained or secluded to punish them or to stress the importance of following classroom rules. While the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is not a magic bullet, he said that using the framework can help educators deal with situations that can lead to restraints and seclusions. 

Allison Sutton, a Kansas teacher, presented lawmakers with a before-and-after picture of her classroom. Sutton said that as a special education teacher, she had not received training and was unprepared for disruptive classroom situations. She said previously, she restrained and secluded students at a high rate; at one time the situation escalated so much that one student gave her a concussion. After receiving crisis training and de-escalation techniques, Sutton said, her use of those methods dropped off dramatically. "Everyone in my classroom can breathe a little easier now," she said.

And Renee Smith, a Rhode Island parent of a student with special needs, shared with lawmakers about her son Dillon's negative experiences with being secluded, and how the practice created significant trauma for him: "He no longer trusted any of the adults in that school." But after transferring to a new school where staff had received special training and students could be rewarded for certain behaviors, Dillon "enjoys school and talks about it regularly."

Democrats expressed repugnance at the impact of the practice. For example, Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., highlighted the story of Andrew McClain, an 11-year-old boy who died by suffocation after he was taken to a "time-out" room at a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. 

"It's barbaric to confine students alone in locked rooms or to use abusive methods to restrain little children," Shalala said. "Treating school kids in this way should not be tolerated in this country, period."

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., the ranking member of the subcommittee, focused on the extent to which teacher training in dealing with disruptive students and potentially dangerous situations could help reduce the need to seclude and restrain students. He also cautioned against having the federal government create new rules for how teacher should, can, and cannot deal with difficult classroom situations.

"None of us can be in every classroom and can probably know the specifics or even the larger contexts in which every incident has occurred," Allen said. 

Image: Renee Smith discusses the impact of seclusion on her son Dillon during a House education subcommittee hearing on restraint and seclusion in schools on Feb. 27, 2019. (Screen capture)


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