AUGUSTA — After nearly nine months of work, a group of special education professionals, school principals, disability rights advocates and parents has sent rule changes on the restraint and seclusion of school children to the Maine Department of Education.
The DOE will review the proposals and then send its version to the education commissioner and the state Legislature for approval.
The stakeholder group has proposed that the word “therapeutic” be struck entirely from the rules, which now refer to “therapeutic restraint.”
“You do a restraint when it’s necessary. Being therapeutic is not its job,” said Disability Rights Center attorney Diane Smith Howard.
The term “time-out” will also no longer be synonymous with “seclusion,” if the group’s recommendations are adopted. The changes would define seclusion as involuntary, while a time-out would be when a student complies with an adult’s request to take a break.
The rules would also prohibit airway-restrictive restraints, which were addressed in two administrative letters to all Maine schools, but which an investigation last year by The Forecaster found was not represented in many schools’ policies and in some cases not being observed by school staff.
The new rules would also require a nurse to examine a child he or she has been restrained, and require parents be notified annually of a school’s policy on the use of restraint and seclusion.
“What we’ve got here is pretty fantastic,” Smith Howard said of the proposed rule changes. “It’s better than a majority of other states.”
However, she said she would have liked to have seen the new rules prohibit schools from including restraint in a student’s individual education plan, or IEP. Currently, schools can include restraint as part of a student’s plan, and Smith Howard said that can result in “planned” restraints, something disability rights advocates would like to see disappear.
Some members of the stakeholder group also fought to include reporting requirements, which would have schools report the number of restraints performed and how many students were restrained every year.
“So, that way (the DOE) could figure out, does a school have a problem, and if it is a problem, why is that the case,” Smith Howard said.
Currently, Maine schools are not required to report any data about restraint and seclusion of students. Other states, such as Connecticut and Texas, do require this kind of reporting.
Smith Howard said the members of the stakeholder group supported the reporting requirements, but that the DOE did not want to require it. She said her group would lobby the Legislature to include the requirement in the rules it will review and ultimately approve, likely in the next session.
The DRC, which frequently represents parents when they file a complaint about the use of restraint and seclusion, also pushed to include a formal complaint process in the new rules.
“We’ve had 50 complaints in the last two years,” Smith Howard said, adding that in the past two weeks alone the DRC has received six restraint- or seclusion-related complaints from parents.
She pointed to budget cuts, which have forced districts to lay off the ed techs who work one-on-one with disabled students or those with behavior problems, as part of the problem.
Deb Davis, a Falmouth resident, stakeholder group member and parent of a child who experienced seclusion and restraint, said she has had several parents call her since she began advocating for students.
“In one story, a mom’s son was in seclusion for five hours,” Davis said. “Even though it’s not in the news, it’s happening every day. There are kids being hurt.”
She said she is cautiously optimistic that the DOE will accept the recommendations the group put together.
“I do think we worked really hard to protect kids,” Davis said.
Once the DOE puts together its proposed changes and presents them to the education commissioner, the public will have 30 days to comment before a legislative committee takes up the issue.
DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the department is not ready to comment on the proposed changes, since the stakeholder group only finished meeting last week.
However, he said there would be multiple public hearings, probably in November and December, on the rule changes before they’re sent to the Legislature, followed by legislative hearings next year.