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Report: Families Have Few Resources to Fight Restraint, Seclusion of Children

Families are often not told if their children are being secluded or restrained in schools, they often have problems getting information about the frequency or duration of such occurrences, and current regulations make it hard to fight such practices, according a majority staff report from the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

The report was released at the same time that the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, re-introduced a bill that would ban the use of seclusion in schools and severely restrict the use of restraints. He introduced a similar bill in 2012 and 2011. Other bills addressing the issue have been introduced in the House, but no bill has garnered enough support to make it to the president's desk.

"These old myths, these old ways of treating people have got to go by the wayside," Harkin said at a Feb. 12 press conference. "You have to wonder how many young lives have been so severely damaged that they cannot be fully included members of our society." 

The staff report noted that restraints and seclusion are regulated in juvenile justice and mental health facilities. But there are no regulations on their use in schools, and the techniques were used 66,000 times in a single school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data collected for the 2009-10 school year.

Families may be left in the dark about the use of these practices on their children, with only their child's change in behavior as an indication that something may be wrong, the report said. And families are currently required to exhaust all of their due process options under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before seeking a court remedy, which may force families to withdraw their children from school as the only means to stop restraint or seclusion.

At the press conference, large pictures of a seclusion room in a Georgia school were next to the podium where Harkin was speaking. The room was bare, with a small observation window protected by wired glass. 

"You know what that reminds me of, folks?" said Harkin, gesturing to the picture. "You know where I was last Saturday? I was in Guantanamo, Cuba." The enemy combatants currently housed in the military prison live in cells that look just like the seclusion room, he said.

In addition to prohibiting seclusion, the bill would bar the use of mechanical restraints, chemical restraints (medication to control behavior that is not a prescribed treatment), or any restraints that restrict breathing. Restraining a student could only be used in emergency situations. The bill also has a provision that would allow a student or family to file a civil action while pursing a due process claim under IDEA. Schools would also be required to notify parents within 24 hours that a restraint had been used with their child.

The bill represents a federal overreach, according to a statement from the National School Board Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

"We agree with Harkin that routine use of restraint and seclusion is indeed inappropriate," the organizations said in statement. However, the bill doesn't recognize that local school personnel have to be able to make decisions based on their real-time assessment of a situation. The bill would also encourage parent litigation instead of collaboration, they said. 

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