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More parents report student restraints; Maine Dept. of Education downplays concerns

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More parents report student restraints; Maine Dept. of Education downplays concerns

SCARBOROUGH — After a story detailing one family's experience with therapeutic restraint was published last week, many other parents came forward to share their experiences, while state agencies downplayed the problem.

Wayne Jackson said his family moved after his son was reportedly restrained improperly in 2008 at Whitefield Elementary School, which is now part of the Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12.

Jackson said his then 8-year-old son, Brandon, who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and early-onset bipolar disorder, was being disruptive in class when the principal allegedly grabbed him and restrained him in a prone position on the floor.

"Prone restraint was not even supposed to be used on Brandon. He has asthma, so they're not allowed to restrict his airway," Jackson said.

He said he had spoken to the school about the possible use of restraint to bring Brandon under control, but that he had asked to be called before any restraint was used. 

"They didn't call until after the restraint. I was only three minutes away," he said.

Jackson said after the restraint, his son was transferred to Chelsea School, which is run by Spurwink.

"They were able to redirect him. They never used restraint," Jackson said.

However, the family is still concerned that there are no regulations in place to protect children in public schools. Jackson said he wants to see teachers receive proper training.

"If they're not trained, they definitely should not be restraining our children," he said.

The Forecaster received calls and e-mails from parents in Lewiston, South Portland, Cumberland, Scarborough, RSU 16 (Poland, Mechanic Falls, Minot) and Brunswick, as well as from parents as far away as Florida, all of whom had similar stories of restraints and seclusions used on their children – primarily, although not exclusively, boys between the ages of 5 and 18.

Some of the children were diagnosed with autism or emotional disorders, but others were not special education students. Some were held many times, some held in prone positions for more than an hour at a time.

"We're very concerned about this," Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Monday.

However, he said the DOE does not have plans to require schools to report this information because schools already have a lot of reporting requirements. He added that the department is not allowed to exceed federal reporting requirements.

"The authority to deal with complaints is primarily at the local level. When there's a serious violation, parents bring that forward," Connerty-Marin said.

Several southern Maine school departments do not compile or report restraint data and refused to release restraint documents after The Forecaster made a Freedom of Access Act request. The schools did agree to add up the number of restraints done in the past year, but some, including parents whose children were restrained, claim the data is drastically understated.

"If a school is not reporting it to you, they're not going to report to the state either," Connerty-Marin said.

When asked if the DOE is aware that none of the six schools in the initial FOAA request had updated their policies to reflect a DOE-requested prohibition of restraints that restrict a child's airway, Connerty-Marin said the agency would look into that.

The U.S. Senate has looked into this issue. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., earlier this year introduced a bill that would prevent harmful restrain and seclusion in schools. However, if a co-sponsor does not come forward, the legislation will likely die in committee.

Dodd's bill would require each school to report the number of seclusions and restraints each year to the public and to the Department of Education.

It would also prohibit schools from using restraints that restrict breathing, require staff to receive state-approved training, require parent notification of restraints, and require that a school notify the protection and advocacy system if a child is injured or killed as the result of a restraint.

The bill states that "seclusion and physical restraint are not therapeutic; and  these practices are not effective means to calm or teach children and may have an opposite effect while simultaneously decreasing a child’s ability to learn."

The bill would also prohibit restraints from being included in a student's Individual Education Plan. That provision, however, is causing some debate.

Advocates for disability rights are trying to keep this prohibition in place, but lobbyists have been pushing to allow restraints in a student's IEP.

The Baizley family of Scarborough, whose son Brandon was subjected to more than 25 restraints, including prone restraints, said when they began working on Brandon's IEP, there were up to 12 school staff members present.

"Our repeated requests for no holds fell on deaf ears," Bob Baizley said. 

Baizley said it was not until representatives from the Disability Rights Center attended the IEP meetings with them that the school responded to their concerns.

"We feel very strongly that the prohibition remain," Denise Marshall, executive director of the national Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said of the Senate bill.

Marshall said to include restraint in a student's IEP would legitimize a dangerous practice.

"These techniques are not good for anything. They are not therapeutic," she said. "If a student needs restraint again and again, there is something wrong."

She also questioned the IEP process, explaining that parents cannot always express dissent.

"Too often parents are far outnumbered. The only way they can dissent is to go through due process," she said.

Phyllis Musumeci started Families Against Restraint and Seclusion four years ago after her autistic son was restrained 89 times in 14 months at a school in Florida.

"After that happened to my son, I said, 'you can't do that to children.' But what I found out was that, yes, they can," she said.

She said she receives letters from parents whose children were tied to chairs, locked in closets, and put in crates, all in the name of therapeutic restraint.

"There's no such thing as therapeutic restraint," she said. "If anything, it escalates behaviors."

Mary Robinson, who is also a parent of a special education student in Auburn, suggested parents form a support group.

"I've gotten a bunch of e-mails from other parents looking to get together," Robinson said. "I think a lot of parents are frustrated."

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net