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Feds Share Largest Collection of Student Restraint, Seclusion Data

New federal data about how often public school students are restrained or secluded at school show that, in the majority of cases, these approaches are used to contain kids with disabilities, who make up just a sixth of all students.

Data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, gathered from the 2009-10 school year from about 85 percent of the nation's school districts, for the first time includes information about mechanical or physical restraints and seclusion. Although even the Government Accountability Office has investigated concerns about the use of these methods, there's never been data collected on this scale about the practices. (Read some of Education Week's coverage of other data collected by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights here.)

Some analysis shared Tuesday by the federal Education Department shows that close to 40,000 students were physically restrained—or held by another person—that school year. Of those, 70 percent of the cases involved students with disabilities.

The department also found although black students make up 21 percent of students with disabilities, they represented 44 percent of the cases in which mechanical restraints—where students are controlled using some kind of a device—were involved. Some schools have used duct tape, handcuffs, helmets, anklets, and other devices, with the premise of keeping students from hurting themselves, teachers, or classmates.

This last practice is of particular concern to many groups who advocate on behalf of students with disabilities. The GAO report chronicled the deaths of some children restrained this way.

A new report from the National Disability Rights Network, whose "School is Not Supposed to Hurt" report several years ago shined a spotlight on the use of restraint and seclusion, shared stories this week of a middle school teacher duct taping a student to his wheelchair in Colorado and a 15-year-old student in Iowa strapped to a lunch table. Civil suits and federal complaints to the federal office for civil rights have, in some of these cases, found the schools violated state laws or students' civil rights, or both.

Federal legislation has been introduced to curb the use of all of these practices, and install specific rules about when and how they are used if at all. The House version has bipartisan support.

But in the absence of laws about restraint and seclusion, the National Disability Rights Network is asking for the Education Department to take action.

"The fact that students with disabilities make up 70 percent of those physically restrained in unconscionable. There needs to be deeper investigation of the numbers of students restrained and secluded and action needs to be taken," the group said. The Education Department "needs to address why there is a disproportionate number of students with disabilities and students of color being restrained and secluded."

I'm exploring the federal reaction to the issue and the statistics. Stay tuned.

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