U.S. House panel to again consider curbs on restraint, seclusion of students

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AUGUSTA — Federal legislation that would restrict the use of restraints and isolation on children in school was introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, introduced the legislation, which would limit schools’ use of physical restraint and locked seclusion. It would allow the practices only when there is imminent danger of injury and only when imposed by trained staff.

The law would also require schools to notify parents after their children are restrained or secluded; outlaw mechanical restraints, such as strapping children to chairs, and prohibit restraints that restrict breathing.

“The whole (disability rights) network is thrilled about this,” Maine Disability Rights Center attorney Diane Smith said. “We’re really hoping it flies through this year.”

A similar bill passed the House of Representatives in March 2010, but was never taken up by the U.S. Senate. Both of Maine’s representatives, Democrats Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud, voted for the legislation.

International disability rights organization TASH (formerly The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps) released a report last week, called “The Cost of Waiting.” It highlights dozens of instances of improper restraint and seclusion in schools across the country in the time since the first bill was passed.

The report included The Forecaster’s report of restraint used on three special education students in the Scarborough school system, as well as dozens of other media reports of restraints and seclusions across the country.

“We must provide children in all states equal protection from these dangerous techniques, and create a cultural shift toward preventative, positive intervention strategies backed by research,” the report states. “Teachers require the knowledge, training, tools and support to protect themselves and their students by preventing problem behaviors and maintaining a positive and healthy educational environment.”

The Forecaster’s investigation turned up nearly 100 restraints used on three children, and found that, despite letters issued to all of the state’s school districts by the Maine Department of Education, none of the schools in the investigation had updated their policies to reflect prohibitions on “airway-restrictive restraint,” specifically prone restraint.

Those policies have since been updated to show the prohibition and require a nurse to examine a child after a restraint.

The proposed federal law would make that prohibition federal law, rather than a DOE rule.

Currently, the DOE is reviewing its restraint and seclusion rules with a work group comprised of disability rights advocacy groups, teachers, administrators and parents.

“The federal legislation still leaves some open holes,” Smith, who sits on the DOE work group, said.

If the federal law passes, she said, the work group would then be able to focus on specific issues, such as enforcement, that would need to be resolved on a state-by-state basis.

“This group is effective and well-facilitated,” Smith said. “All indications are that the Department (of Education) is going to give us the time we need to work on this.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.