FALMOUTH — Deb Davis played an integral role when the state adopted new rules governing the physical restraint of students four years ago.
Now a professional advocate for students like her own special-needs child, Davis said improvements are still needed about when and how often schools resort to using restraint, particularly when it comes to students with disabilities.
“We really need to know more about the students who are being restrained and secluded,” she said this week. “Are they a minority? Do they have a disability? What’s happening to our youngest students?”
“It’s really important that we make a commitment to collect and analyze the data,” she added. “That is the only way we can effectively work to reduce the need to use these unsafe” practices.
This is the same stance taken by Disability Rights Maine, which recently released a report that raises questions about whether schools are following the new rules, particularly when it comes to accurately reporting the use of physical restraint.
Disability Rights Maine said its goal was to “provoke questions, analysis, and action by schools and (the Maine Department of Education)” with the hope “that these actions will lead to a reduction in the use of these dangerous and ineffective interventions.”
Commonly referred to as Chapter 33 of the Maine Revised Statutes, the rules define restraint and seclusion “as emergency interventions that may only be used when there is a risk of injury or harm and only after less intrusive interventions have failed.”
Chapter 33 also “prioritizes the use of behavior intervention and strategies to proactively address problem behaviors through skill building and environmental modifications in order to avoid situations where physical intervention may become necessary,” Disability Rights Maine said.
Unfortunately, it added, “implementation of Chapter 33 has, for many students, fallen far short of these lofty goals.”
That’s why, among several other recommendations, Disability Rights Maine is asking the Department of Education to “ensure that schools across the state are provided support in adopting positive behavioral interventions … and in taking other steps aimed at reducing the need” for physical restraint.
The Forecaster first began reporting on this issue in the summer of 2010. In a series of stories over the next couple years, the paper focused on the experiences of local families, as well as policy makers and individual school districts.
The series, which helped lead to changes in student restraint practices in Maine, in 2011 won a national award for Investigative Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and a Publick Occurrences Award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
Ben Jones, the staff attorney for Disability Rights Maine, said the center conducted its recent study because it is still “concerned about the overuse of restraint and seclusion in schools.”
“What we want,” he said, “is for the Department of Education and schools across (the state) to take this seriously.
“We are greatly concerned that schools are failing to review their restraint and seclusion numbers quarterly, which is when they could spot trends and come up with strategies … to reduce their use of these interventions,” Jones added.
“When we see a case with an excessive use of restraint or seclusion, we believe it represents a programmatic failure,” he said.
That includes “the failure to make necessary environmental modifications or provide appropriate services and supports to address behaviors before they escalate to a point where physical intervention may be justified.”
In response to the Disability Rights Maine report, Sarah Ricker, the student assistance coordinator at the Maine Department of Education, said school districts across the state are in fact correctly reporting their use of restraint.
And, she said, “There is always a two-way communication between (my office and school districts) in regard to reported data with the intention of assuring that students are safe toward themselves and others while in the learning environment.”
Ricker also said the education department is currently “coordinating a statewide effort with schools to develop a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports framework for dealing with (disruptive) student behavior.”
Overall, Ricker believes that schools are taking seriously the directive to only resort to physical restraint when it’s absolutely necessary.
When her son was younger, the school district used physical restraint far too often, Davis said.
In fact, she believes her son, who is now in middle school, suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder after being restrained by school staff.
Since then, Davis said, “I’ve worked really hard with my school to have an educational plan in place that supports my son. He’s doing great; he hasn’t needed restraint since kindergarten.
“He’s in middle school now and we just recently took out the behavioral supports in his (individual education plan) because he no longer needs them,” she said. “I’m really proud of what he has accomplished.”
Even though her story has had a happy ending, Davis said she’s still finding that schools are aren’t doing enough assessment “to better understand the behavioral challenges (of students and) they’re not updating behavior intervention plans to try to prevent the use (of physical restraint) in the future.”
In addition, Davis is in absolute agreement with the Disability Rights Maine report and said, “Schools need a more comprehensive approach to training” in terms of safely handling a disruptive student.
She also said schools need to focus more on “what can we do proactively and at that moment to reduce the chance of unsafe behavior.”
“Many educators do not understand how to recognize the signs of agitation, do not know how to verbally de-escalate agitated students, or are not using preventative and early intervention strategies,” Davis added.
For her part, Davis would like to “see the state do more work to ensure that the restraint rules are being followed with fidelity. I would (also) like schools to review their data to identify those areas that can be addressed to reduce the future use of restraint.”
Schools across Maine are now allowed to use physical restraint, such as the basket hold, in emergency situations when all other measures have failed to calm a disruptive student.