School Climate & Safety

70,000 Students With Disabilities Secluded, Restrained in School

But Rates Can Vary Widely From District to District
By Christina A. Samuels — May 16, 2017 9 min read
Brian Long, left, and Kim Long, right, with their son Brennan Long last year. Brennan was left with two shattered thigh bones after being restrained by a staff member in his Louisville school in 2014.
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One out of every 100 special education students was restrained by school personnel or secluded in school from his or her peers in the 2013-14 school year, presumably to quell behavior that teachers considered disruptive or dangerous.

That means nearly 70,000 special education students were restrained or secluded in that school year, the most recent for which data are available. For most students, this happened more than once: States reported more than 200,000 such incidents, so on average, a special education student was restrained or secluded about three times.

These statistics, based on an analysis by the Education Week Research Center of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, represent the best national snapshot of these controversial practices.

The numbers are also, almost surely, dramatically understated.

By the Numbers: Restraint & Seclusion

The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection offers the only information available on the use of restraint and seclusion nationwide. The data that is captured show that students with disabilities and boys are most often subject to restraint and seclusion. State policy does not appear to fully determine variations in reported use of such practices.

One out of 5 districts have students that were restrained or secluded during the 2013-14 school year.

Nearly 70,000 students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were restrained or secluded in 2013-14.

• Those students account for over 200,000 incidents of restraint or seclusion.

One in every 100 students with disabilities is restrained or secluded.

Four out of 5 students with disabilities who are restrained or secluded are males.

Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection, 2017. Some student counts were rounded to protect individuals from being identified.

Many large districts, including New York City and Chicago, were among the nearly 80 percent of districts that reported no special education students being restrained or secluded.

Advocacy groups and news organizations have investigated restraint and seclusion incidents in individual states and have found large undercounts. This is true even in states such as Indiana and Maine that have their own reporting requirements separate from the federal collection of civil rights data.

The shaky recordkeeping has serious consequences for students, who are traumatized or injured at unknown rates; teachers, who say they aren’t getting the help they need to deal with troubled students; and advocates and policymakers, who say they want to end inappropriate use of these practices.

The data also show how challenging it is to regulate restraint and seclusion through policy. Whether students are restrained or secluded appears to have more to do with the culture of the school or district they attend than with any state rules or regulations meant to restrict the practice. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire, examining previous collections of restraint and seclusion data, found that the vast majority of the variance in reported restraint and seclusion rates is found among districts in the same state, all presumably governed by the same policies.

Many states are continuing to enact such restrictions, however. Michigan is one that has recently prohibited seclusion and restricted restraint to emergency situations involving the safety of the student or others. In addition, districts must train key personnel in de-escalation and safe restraint procedures. The changes will take place in the 2017-18 school year.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican, led a commission that was asked to recommend reforms to the state’s special education program. For that work, he traveled around the state to hear parents’ concerns about restraint and seclusion.

“It’s really unbelievable, some of the things I’ve heard,” said Calley, who has a daughter with autism spectrum disorder. “The anecdotal evidence was just piling up that it was much more common than anyone cared to admit.”

Federal Efforts to Reduce Restraint

Recently, the issue has made it into federal policy: States must explain how they plan to reduce “aversive behavioral interventions” under the state plans that are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015.

Several of the 16 plans submitted so far refer to supporting school districts as they implement positive behavioral supports and interventions, a framework to prompt good behavior. None of the plans submitted so far spell out a restraint-and-seclusion threshold that would trigger further state intervention to reduce the numbers.

In Ky., a Restraint and an Injury

In 2013, Kentucky enacted regulations that, for the first time, spelled out how restraint and seclusion could be used in its school districts.

The policy stipulates that such practices could only be used if a student’s behavior represents “imminent danger” to himself or others. The restraint or seclusion must end as soon as the danger has passed, and parents must be notified within 24 hours. The provisions closely matched a set of best practices that had been released a year earlier by the U.S. Department of Education.

But a year later, a then-16-year-old autistic student, Brennan Long, was left with two shattered thigh bones after being restrained in his Louisville school.

The fallout from that incident has continued since then. An investigation by the Louisville Courier-Journal found that the 100,000-student Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, was dramatically underreporting cases of restraint and seclusion. In the same year that Long was injured, the district reported 174 restraint and seclusion incidents to the state. Upon further review, Jefferson County reported that restraint and seclusion incidents were far higher—4,165.

Several other concerns have come to light. Jefferson County was found to be one of five Kentucky school districts that trained some staff members in Aikido Control Training, a form of Japanese martial arts that includes prone restraint techniques. Prone restraints are banned under state regulations and have led to deaths in other situations. Further investigations found other troubling restraint cases, including a 2014 incident where a special education teacher held a student against a wall until he vomited as he attempted to break free.

In February, Stephen Pruitt, the state commissioner of education, said that Jefferson County would have to go through a top-to-bottom management audit. The superintendent of the school district, Donna Hargens, announced in April that she will resign at the end of the 2016-17 school year, her sixth leading the district. The relationship between Hargens and the county school board worsened in the wake of the scrutiny by the state.

What happened to Brennan Long, now 18, has yet to be fully explained. No criminal charges have yet been filed in the matter, but investigations continue. School staff members have said that Brennan was aggressive on the day he was injured, and taken to the ground by an aide in a procedure that nudged the student off-balance and allowed him to be lowered to the floor in a seated position. Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, a federally mandated agency that represents people with disabilities, said that the behaviors that staff members described, such as making loud noises, getting up from his chair, biting his arm, and putting his hands in his pants, were not aggressive. And the restraint had to have been more forceful to cause such serious injuries, the advocacy organization said. The aide that restrained Brennan remains employed by the district.

The Long family ended up settling with the school district for $1.75 million, and has continued to speak out on the case.

“It’s amazing to us that this is taking so long,” said Brennan Long’s father, Brian. “But we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

“I’ve done a lot of work with restraint and seclusion. I’ve gotten laws passed that really limit the use of restraint and seclusion in lots of other settings. None of that has translated into the school setting,” said Leslie Morrison, the director of investigations for Disability Rights California, a federally funded organization that advocates and litigates on behalf of state residents with disabilities. “The resistance is remarkable to me.”

But when it comes to issues of behavior, it’s impossible to say there should only be a certain number of restraints or seclusions, said Sarah Ricker, the student assistance coordinator for the Maine education department. Such numbers are dependent on a student’s behavior and needs.

“What is high, what is low—we can only determine that over a period of time,” Ricker said. Maine restricts restraints to emergencies where a student’s safety is at risk, and teachers understand that, she said."I have not heard a teacher say they don’t know what they need to do.”

The last time a federal restriction on restraint and seclusion garnered some traction was nearly a decade ago. The National Disability Rights Network, which represents the state protection and advocacy organizations, released a report in 2009 called “School is Not Supposed to Hurt” that catalogued dozens of cases of abusive restraint and seclusion incidents and four deaths linked to the practices.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report the same year saying that it had found hundreds of abuse allegations over the prior two decades linked to restraint and seclusion in schools.

In 2010, Congress came close to enacting a federal policy restricting the practices, but the provision died in the Senate over hotly contested language that would have allowed restraint or seclusion to be written into a student’s individualized education program.

But that wasn’t the end of the federal government’s attempt to influence the issue. In 2012, the Education Department released a document outlining 15 principles that states could use as a starting place for their own regulations aimed at reducing restraint and seclusion. And, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the department’s office for civil rights sent out guidance to districts outlining how restraint and seclusion could be considered a violation of a student’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other federal statutes.

But statewide policy changes don’t always make much of a difference at the school and district level. Researchers at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire analyzed federal data on restraint and seclusion that was collected during the 2009-10 and 2011-12 school years. Of the 10 states with the highest levels of restraints and seclusions, six had meaningful prohibitions meant to limit the practice, said Douglas Gagnon, who led the analysis.

Emergency Considerations

Prohibitions against restraint and seclusion generally leave an opening for the practice to be used on an emergency basis, to protect the student or others from physical harm. But “it’s tough to really codify what’s an emergency, and what’s a threat,” Gagnon said.

About This Series

Hidden Inequities: An Education Week Analysis

Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers, leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers, and restrict opportunities for students with disabilities. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences.

This installment is the third of a series intended to shed light on the “hidden inequities” that keep education from reaching the goal of leveling the playing field for all students. Each report is being produced by Education Week staff writers working in collaboration with the Education Week Research Center. Watch for the June installment, which will examine school closings and high student-mobility rates, their impact on educational quality, and their disparate effects on different school communities.

Click here to read the full series.

In 2013, Maine started requiring schools to document each use of restraint and seclusion. Disability Rights Maine, one of the nation’s federally funded and mandated protection-and-advocacy agencies, requested access to that data. In an April report, the organization found that in a state with about 30,000 students, ages 3-21, in special education, there were between 11,600 and 16,500 reported incidents of restraint and seclusion over the four years that the law has been in place.

But that number is also skewed by undercounting: Nearly one-third of the entities covered under Maine’s law failed to report data for all four years, the Disability Rights Maine investigation found.

California lawmakers in 2013 repealed a state requirement that mandated data collection on emergency interventions and required districts to create behavior-management plans for students with serious behavioral problems. The previous state law had imposed costs and requirements on California that were in excess of what the federal law required, state officials argued.

In the last year that state reporting was required, California had 22,043 “behavioral emergency reports,” which include restraints and seclusions. Advocates believe many of those incidents were not linked to emergencies, however.

Last year, the federal Education Department’s civil rights office entered into a settlement agreement with California’s Oakland Unified district after investigating a case where a student was restrained more than 90 times in 11 months. Stuart Candell, who has autism and was 9 at the time, was often held face down by two to three adults, according to federal investigators. Prone restraint has been linked to suffocation deaths. The district was required to sever ties with any private schools that use the technique.

Now a 13-year-old in 7th grade, Stuart is not being restrained any more, said his mother, Bonnie Candell. While she did not know about all of the restraint incidents, she knew the school used the technique.

“You think, well, they must know what they’re doing,” Bonnie Candell said.

Potential Undercount

At the same time, federal data could be capturing overcounting. The 3,000-student Columbia-Brazoria district in southeast Texas is one of many across the country that stands out from neighboring school systems because federal data show a relatively high 82 restraint or seclusion incidents among 250 students with disabilities.

That’s wrong, said Lynn Grell-Boethel, the director of special education for the district for 16 years. A clerical employee was erroneously recording children being sent to the office as seclusions, she said, and police arrests were wrongly recorded as mechanical restraints. Typical seclusions, such as isolating a child in a special room for that purpose, are not allowed under Texas regulations.

The actual number of restraint incidents for students with disabilities in the 2013-14 school year, Grell-Boethel said, was seven.

The district is making efforts to reduce restraint rates, Grell-Boethel said.

“You really have to know the kid, and you really have to develop strong relationships with them,” she said. “These are community schools, so a lot of people in the schools know the family, know the kids, know the situation.”

The 42,000-student Marion County, Fla., district is also trying to lower its restraint and seclusion rates. Florida requires districts to report numbers and take corrective action if the incidents reported are higher than state averages. According to state data, the central Florida district reported 467 restraints and 377 seclusions in 2015-16, more than any other similar-sized state district.

Heidi Maier, who was elected superintendent in November, knew the issue would have to be addressed, said Elizabeth Fields, the district’s special education director. The school system is looking at a variety of methods, from eliminating seclusion rooms to providing more teacher training and setting up rooms where students can voluntarily calm themselves.

“We need a lot of verbal de-escalation training,” Fields said. “That needs to happen to all teachers. General education teachers are saying those kids are in my room, too.”

Reece L. Peterson, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert in reducing restraint and seclusion, supports more training, but he is sympathetic to teachers who say that’s just one more activity to fit into an already-packed schedule.

“What we need is a few states to be models of what could happen,” he said.

Research analyst Alex Harwin and Research Intern Jack Williams contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as 70,000 Are Secluded, Restrained

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