Federal data shows disproportionate use of seclusion and restraint

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has collected data showing that, nationwide, school employees use isolation (seclusion) and restraint techniques disproportionately on disabled students, especially disabled African-American disabled students, says Education Week. ED surveyed more than 72,000 public schools, asking how many students were isolated or restrained for the purpose of keeping them from harming themselves, classmates, or school employees. Although seclusion and restraint are primarily associated with special education, the data show those technique are used on all students.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Of students with disabilities who were mechanically restrained, which includes being handcuffed, tied down, strapped to a chair, or held with equipment for that purpose, a disproportionate share, 44%, were African-American. Only 21% the overall population of students with disabilities are African-Americans.
  • Of all 38,792 students physically restrained by school staff members, nearly 70% were students with disabilities.
  • Of 131,990 instances of physical restraint tallied by the data collection, 78.6%  involved students with disabilities, compared with 21% for other students. Yet just 12% of the 42 million students in the data set have disabilities.
  • Schools were far more likely to isolate students with disabilities. Of the 111,417 instances of seclusion in the survey, 61.7% were of students with disabilities, compared with 38.3% for other students.

Russlynn H. Ali, ED’s assistant secretary for civil rights, found the disparity shocking. Ali’s office, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR),  requires a sample of districts across the country to answer questions about subjects including course enrollment and participation on athletic teams and in college-entrance exams, all broken down by race, gender, and whether students have a disability every two years. The data OCR gathered for the 2009-10 school year encompassed more districts than ever, nearly half of all districts, a large enough swath to include 85% of the nation’s public school students. OCR asked schools to report restraint and seclusion data, in part because of public input and concerns about the practices raised in 2009, when the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)  issued “School Is Not Supposed to Hurt.”

According to Ron Hager, a senior staff lawyer for NDRN, the numbers should dispel any idea that the use of restraint and seclusion is isolated. NDRN published its second update to “School Is Not Supposed to Hurt” on the same day the federal restraint and seclusion data were released.

The group’s first report led to congressional hearings, a request from ED Secretary Arne Duncan that states develop or revise policies governing their use, and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Bills that would regulate and limit restraint and seclusion have been introduced in Congress, but they have stalled. In the meantime, states have passed a patchwork of laws regulating those practices on their own.

However, some organizations argue against federal regulation of such methods. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) has  issued its own report, “Keeping Schools Safe: How Seclusion and Restraint Protects Students and School Personnel.” The report relates incidents in which restraining students was delayed and the result was injuries to teachers and administrators severe enough to prompt visits to the emergency room.

The report also cites parents who attest that, without the use of restraints and seclusion, their children would have been institutionalized. “This is not something schools use to punish children,” said Sasha Pudelski, AASA’s government-affairs manager. “It’s something the school used when behavior-management techniques fail and the situation becomes untenable.”

AASA does not support any federal legislation on the issue, but  Pudelski admitted that sometimes the practices are misused. “The unfortunate reality is, there are individuals in school systems that make a variety of mistakes—sometimes intentionally—that hurt children,” she said. “We would never support those actors.”

The proposed legislation provides for training, which may be lacking in some cases where students or staff were injured, said Lindsay E. Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children. A common thread in those scenarios, Jones said, is that the class is large, the teachers and other staff members are inexperienced, or the educators involved are general education teachers who haven’t had any training about restraint and seclusion.

Source: Education Week, 3/13/12, By Nirvi Shah

[Editor's Note: The 2009 data is available at OCR's data collection website. The "School Is Not Supposed to Hurt" 2009 report and its 2012 update are available from the National Disability Rights Network. The GAO report is available here. AASA's report is available here.

As the Education Week article notes,  some states have moved to enact rules and regulations limiting the use of seclusion and restraint. In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in the Bowling Green Daily News reporting that Kentucky education officials were limiting the use of restraint and seclusion on public school students after citing two schools for violating the rights of three disabled students who were subjected to the practices. In November 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Bangor Daily News reporting that the Maine Department Education had released a draft of its new rules governing the use of restraint and seclusion on students in public schools. In July 2010, Legal Clips cited the Atlanta Journal Constitution's coverage of the Georgia State Board of Education's decision to prohibit the practice of seclusion in schools.

Even some school districts have adopted policies to restrict the use of restraint and seclusion. In April 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Palm Beach Post reporting that the Palm Beach County School Board had increased limitations on the restraints that can be used on special-needs students.]

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