Southern Maine schools prohibit some restraints as state considers policy changes

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PORTLAND — After school superintendents received two letters from the state Department of Education – one in July 2009, the second last September – several southern Maine schools have updated their therapeutic restraint and seclusion policies to prohibit holds that restrict children’s airways.

The Scarborough, South Portland and Falmouth school boards have acted on amendments to the policies which specifically prohibit airway-restrictive restraints and electrical outlets in time-out rooms, and require the schools to maintain a list of employees certified to restrain students.

The changes also require the schools to notify the school nurse “as soon as practicably possible” and document any injuries to children.

Regional School Unit 5 directors will vote on the changes at their Jan. 26 meeting and the Brunswick School Board is reviewing the policy changes.

“I think this is a good start,” said Jude Herb, mother of an 8-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Her son was a Scarborough student until Herb witnessed him being held in a two-person prone-position restraint and pulled him from school.

“There’s more to it than just saying, ‘you can’t do this.’ Changing this policy doesn’t do anything about really how specific the training has to be,” she said.

The changes come after a series of stories appeared last summer and fall in The Forecaster reporting the use of restraints on three special education students in Scarborough schools.

Nearly 100 restraints were used on the three boys, all of whom were between 5 and 7 years old, over the course of three years, until all three were removed from the school district and sent to other schools.

In a 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Report, several deaths from restraints were reported in other states. In November, a child’s parents pulled him from the Dorothy Thurman Alternative School in Tampa, Fla. after an airway-restrictive restraint reportedly caused the 14-year-old developmentally disabled boy’s eyes to bleed.

The new restraint policies aim to prevent these kinds of injuries to public school students.

“We were never in violation of the policy,” Scarborough Special Education Director Alison Marchese said during a Dec. 8 School Board policy meeting.

Marchese, who also sits on the representative board for the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, said Scarborough teachers are well-trained in safe restraints and that the school switched from one type of training program to another this summer.

Scarborough staff were told to stop using prone restraints, where students are placed face down on the floor while adults restrain their arms and legs, last March, Marchese said.

“Prone restraints can be done safely,” she said, “But we wanted more variety of holds.”

The Maine Department of Education does not require schools to count the number of restraints that take place each year. Connecticut schools in December reported using restraints more than 18,000 times last year.

“We need to have much more documentation of this,” Herb said. “There needs to be an overseeing agency that would regulate and track how restraint is used.”

While many Maine schools’ policies on restraints require documentation, neither the forms nor official counts are reported to the DOE.

However, in March 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced that it will begin collecting restraint and seclusion data from 7,000 schools across the country and make that data available on a public website.

Portland, Scarborough, Falmouth, South Portland, Yarmouth, Cumberland and Brunswick have all been asked to provide this data to the Office of Civil Rights in the past, and it is likely they will have to provide documentation of restraints in the future.

Additionally, the state Department of Education is reviewing its own rules on therapeutic restraint and seclusion.

The DOE has formed a stakeholder group, which met Nov. 18 in Augusta, and will meet four more times before official changes are made to the state’s rules on how schools can use restraints and seclusion on students.

In addition to special education directors, school superintendents and disability rights groups, Herb represented a parent advocacy group, the Maine Parent Federation. She was the only parent of a disabled child who had been restrained at the meeting.

“I find it very hard to believe they could only find one parent to do this,” she said.

However, Herb said, she is glad the rules are being discussed.

“We would like to see clarification for how (restraint and seclusion) could be used and for how long,” Maine Disability Rights Center Attorney Diane Smith said of the rule changes. “What that first meeting showed me was how confused we all are about what this is and how it can be used.”

Smith said she’d also like to see specific prohibitions of prone and airway restrictive restraints, as well as a formal parent complaint process.

“Restraint shouldn’t be used to prevent property damage,” Smith said. “I have a feeling there will be a knock-down, drag-out fight on that one (during future meetings).”

Regardless of whether the Disability Rights Center gets everything it wants into the rules, Smith said she is just glad to see the issue finally being taken seriously by the state.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or