Long-awaited direction from the U.S. Department of Education about restraining and secluding students at school arrived last week, but some advocacy groups say it doesn’t go as far as it could.
The restraint and seclusion of students—often those with disabilities—is intended for emergency situations, such as when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others. But several reports, including one in 2009 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have found that the practices are being used inappropriately and incorrectly in some cases, leading to injuries and even deaths.
“There is a difference between a brief timeout in the corner of a classroom to help a child calm down and locking a child in an isolated room for hours,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.
His agency said the 15 principles on restraint and seclusion, issued last week, should be used as the foundation of policies and procedures crafted by states and districts, but the document isn’t binding. But it is a start, said Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children, in Arlington, Va.
“It’s just a guidance document, but it very clearly states the use of restraint and seclusion procedures is not treatment,” she said. Among the principles:
• Preventing the restraint and isolation of students should be a priority, and policies on the use of those measures should apply to all students, not just those with disabilities.
• Students shouldn’t be physically held down or restrained except when in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others. Mechanical restraints should never be used to restrict students’ movement. Schools shouldn’t use drugs to control behavior unless prescribed by a health professional.
• Isolating or restraining students should never be used as a form of punishment or as a convenience.
• Multiple uses of restraint or seclusion of the same student should trigger a review and, if necessary, a revision of strategies in place to address dangerous behavior.
• Teachers and other staff members should be trained regularly about appropriate use of effective alternatives, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, and the safe use of restraint and isolation.
The Education Department also said parents should be informed about restraint and seclusion policies, notified if the practices are used, and the incidents should be documented.
“However, since it appears only as a resource document, these principles are not enforceable and do not explicitly prevent, reduce, or eliminate aversive practices used against children,” the Washington-based Alliance to Prevent Restraint, Aversive Interventions, and Seclusion said.
“Until prevention becomes enforceable at the federal level and our children are no longer at risk of being improperly restrained or secluded in school, we’ll continue advocating for protections under the law,” said Barb Trader, the executive director of TASH, formerly The Association for the Severely Handicapped, which leads the alliance.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the has sponsor of federal legislation about restraint and seclusion, applauded the guidance, which he said supports a bill he first introduced in 2010, the Keeping All Students Safe Act. The U.S. Senate, which has not taken up a similar bill, is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue next month.
“Though some states have made progress developing policies on seclusion and restraint, the policies vary widely in what protections they afford students,” Rep. Miller said. “A patchwork of protections, riddled with holes, is not acceptable when it comes to children.”
The Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, which opposes federal legislation, said it agrees with the tone of the new guidance but prefers state-based policies on restraint and seclusion, however.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Provides Direction on Restraint, Seclusion of Students