How one school district is drafting a policy against unlawful restraint and seclusion

We’ve heard the horror stories – Practices of using restraints and seclusion (R&S;) in schools have humiliated, physically harmed, or even caused the deaths of  children.  Yet many schools use R&S; routinely as a method to get troublesome kids, even those as young as five years old,  out of the classroom. Children on the autism spectrum are particularly vulnerable to this type of treatment.  Because they do not display physical signs of their disabilities, they are often perceived as being non-compliant, lazy or just plain ‘difficult.’

For Missouri, the path to fixing the problem started with one courageous mom’s outrage against the treatment of her young son. Her story caught the attention of the media, and soon other families soon came forward and began sharing their experiences. Not long after that, the issue was brought to the Missouri Congress.  Legislators listened, and a bill was passed in 2010 mandating public schools to develop rules against unlawful restraint and seclusion. 

But there was a big gap between mandating a policy and developing one. Some parents  wanted restraints and seclusion banned under all circumstances. Other parents insisted that some R&S;  practices should stay in place, because they were terrified that their children would hurt themselves or others.  School districts were concerned that eliminating restraints and ‘time out’ rooms would disrupt class routines and upset and/or endanger other students when a child acted out.

So, a committee was  formed to draft  the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s rules and guidelines, beginning with definitions: What is restraint? What are acceptable/non-acceptable forms of restraint? There are a number of ways schools had restrained children in the past - medically (drugs), physically and mechanically. Drugs were not allowed to be administered. Prone and face-down restraints were particularly singled out as  harmful, and were banned. Mechanical restraints were defined as anything using straps, including clothing (one school practiced strapping children to their chairs by putting their coats on backward and zipping them up behind the backs of their chair), and were also controlled.  The situations where restraint and seclusion could be used also needed to be defined. What constitutes an emergency situation and how long could seclusion be used? For example, under the new policy, seclusion could not last longer than the time it took for the police to arrive.  Parents had to agree in writing to the use of any R&S; in the IEP.

Then, the policy had to be adopted by each school district, and districts were called upon to develop their own guidelines based upon what the state had developed. In our area, The St. Louis Special School District (SSD), is one of the few separatespecial education school districts in the nation.  Our local districts contract SSD to provide services, so SSD is also one of the largest special education providers in the US, providing services to over 25,000 students.   Thus, a new committee of educators and parents was formed to develop district policy.
Some of the proposed policy elements were unanimously accepted; for others, the district wouldn’t budge. Accountability, for one.  What are the consequences of an educator not following policy?There would be no separate accountability other than the district’s own code of conduct and performance standards. What about prevention? Again, the district believed that the preventative measures via behavioral interventions were sufficient to stop most disruption from escalating to the point where restraint and seclusion would be necessary. (BTW, I don’t agree with either of these. Violators should be punished, and we have a loooooong way to go before we eliminate years and years of repeated failure that causes some children’s behavior to escalate into violence.)

Mae Wilkinson

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