School Climate & Safety

Ed. Dept. Pushes to Reduce ‘Inappropriate’ Restraint, Seclusion in Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — January 17, 2019 2 min read
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The Education Department’s offices for civil rights and for special education and rehabilitative services are teaming up to “address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion” on students with disabilities.

The agencies on Thursday outlined three areas that they will focus on: conducting compliance reviews of school districts, providing resources on legalities and on interventions that could “reduce the need for less effective and potentially dangerous practices"; and on improving data collection on the use of restraint and seclusion.

“This initiative will not only allow us to support children with disabilities, but will also provide technical assistance to help meet the professional learning needs of those within the system serving students,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “The only way to ensure the success of all children with disabilities is to meet the needs of each child with a disability. This initiative furthers that important mission.”

Back in 2012, the Education Department released a document that provided 15 principles school leaders should consider when developing restraint and seclusion policies. The document, which was nonbinding, said that restraint and seclusion should only be used when a student is in imminent danger of hurting himself or others, that restraint and seclusion should not be used as a punishment, and that teachers and other staff members should be trained in effective alternatives, among other suggestions.

But the practice continues to be widespread—just how widespread, though, is unclear. 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.

Those numbers, however, are almost surely underreported. An Education Week analysis of an earlier data release on restraint and seclusion for the 2013-14 school year noted that 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.

And despite state laws restricting such practices, students are also still being subjected to the most dangerous kinds of holds, such as prone restraints which can cause suffocation. In December, a 13-year-old California student with autism, Max Benson, died at his private school in suburban Sacramento after being held in a prone restraint for nearly an hour. An investigation of the school, which enrolls students referred there by their public district, found that the school was using restraints for “predictable behavior” and for longer than necessary.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.