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Ban Student Seclusion in Schools, Lawmakers Tell Betsy DeVos

By Evie Blad — January 15, 2020 2 min read
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After an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found Illinois schools put children in “isolated timeout” for illegal reasons, a group of the state’s federal lawmakers have asked U.S. Secretary of Education to ban seclusion in schools nationwide.

“We are gravely concerned by harmful student seclusion and restraint practices occurring in schools around our country,” said a letter sent to DeVos Thursday by 11 Illinois Democrats, including organizer Rep. Sean Casten and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. “We respectfully urge you to update your federal guidance banning seclusion, banning restraints that restrict breathing and are life-threatening, and promoting evidence-based, positive behavior strategies and de-escalation techniques to reduce the use of physical restraint.”

A non-binding 2012 guidance document from the U.S. Department of Education outlined 15 factors school leaders should consider when developing restraint and seclusion policies. Restraint and seclusion should only be used when a student is in imminent danger of hurting himself or others, the practices should not be used as a punishment, and teachers and other staff members should be trained in effective alternatives, that document said.

More than 120,000 students were restrained or secluded during the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year for which Education Department statistics are available. Seventy-one percent of those restrained and 66 percent of those secluded were in special education. But advocates and government watchdog agencies say incidents of restraint and seclusion are severely underreported.

In January 2019, the Education Department announced plans to “address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion” by doing compliance reviews of schools and districts, improving data collection, and providing resources on less-dangerous alternative methods of addressing student behavior.

Georgia, Hawaii, Nevada, and Pennsylvania ban seclusion, ProPublica reported, and 16 others limit its use. Illinois adopted new restrictions on the practice following the news organizations’ investigation.

“Reporters also found that school employees were physically restraining children—sometimes facedown on the floor—when there was not an emergency safety risk, also a violation of state law,” ProPublica said in a summary of its reporting. “Most of the children who were secluded had intellectual or behavioral disabilities.”

“The Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation, based on records from more than 100 school districts, documented more than 35,000 times when students were put in seclusion or restrained. While state law allows seclusion and restraint only when there’s a safety issue, workers put children in isolation as punishment for spilling milk, not doing work or refusing to put toys away, the analysis found.”

In addition to the Illinois lawmakers, the letter is also signed by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat who has sponsored legislation to ban seclusion, corporal punishment, and some other school discipline practices.