By Melinda Carstensen
Public schools are physically restraining thousands of children against their will every day, and many of them are kids with disabilities, a new report has found.
A ProPublica analysis of federal data reveals that at least 267,000 kids in U.S. public schools were restrained or secluded for misbehavior or violence in the 2011-2012 school year. Mechanical restraints, like ropes and belts, were used 7,600 times, NPR reports, and in 75 percent of the cases, kids with disabilities were the ones who were restrained or secluded.
Federal legislation could address the issue, but for now it's up to states to decide how to suppress and prevent student outbursts, and their policies vary.
In most states, educators are allowed to restrain students even when physical danger doesn’t exist, including using holds that restrict breathing.
Educators in the Patch areas of Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland, for example, can pin students down even if there isn’t an emergency, which ProPublica defined as involving potential harm to the student and others.
Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts allow educators to restrict kids’ breathing when restraining them, including those with disabilities.
Many states also don’t require educators to notify parents if their children were pinned down or isolated at school.
Some conservatives argue these approaches should be left up to school districts, and high-profile lobbies of school district leaders and school boards agree.
The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association say that a Senate bill calling for a limit of restraints and seclusions is “a federal overreach” that "fails to recognize the need for local school personnel to make decisions based on their onsite, real-time assessment of the situation."
Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, told NPR that the right to restrain or seclude a student is imperative.
"It is used when a child is acting out in a way, for example, where they are in the process of clawing their eyes out, or tearing their hair out, or smashing their head up against the wall," he said. "And they need to be restrained so they can be stopped from hurting themselves. Or when a child will attack another child. Or when a child will attack a member of the staff."
The Senate bill would prohibit seclusion, while the House version would make seclusion limited to emergencies.
The AASA argues federal legislation would ultimately lead to more injuries at schools and more disabled students being sent to residential institutions.
But a program at the Montgomery County, Va., school district has helped reduce and prevent student outbursts, ProPublica reports. The district’s approach is called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, and it uses positive rather than disciplinary action to calm students when they become violent or angry.
Administrators say it hasn’t caused a disabled student exodus, nor has it increased injuries at those schools.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, a democrat from California, told ProPublica that young people “die in restraint and seclusion.”
NPR cites a 2009 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that revealed hundreds of abusive restraint cases and at least 20 deaths.“I don’t know how much more serious it has to get,” Miller said.