School Climate & Safety

Heavy Response to Nebraska Restraint Bill Illuminates Teachers’ Frustrations

By Christina A. Samuels — May 17, 2017 4 min read
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My latest article, published in our May 17 edition, provides national statistics on restraint and seclusion and discusses how little we know about the prevalence of the practice. Restraint and seclusion is almost surely happening more frequently than reported, leading to damaging results for both students and teachers.

My article notes that many states are moving to restrict restraint and seclusion to situations where a student is at risk of harming himself or others. But, bucking that trend, a Nebraska legislator introduced a bill during this legislative session that would have allowed school personnel more leeway, as well as legal protection, if they physically restrained disruptive students.

Thousands of teachers wrote to their union in support of the bill, said Jay Sears, the director of instructional advocacy for the Nebraska State Education Association. And that response—like nothing the union had seen before, Sears said‐shows that educators don’t feel supported when it comes to dealing with dangerous or disruptive students, he said.

The bill itself is likely dead for this legislative session, though the lawmaker behind it says he’d like to reintroduce it next year. But the response has prompted the union to partner with the state’s school boards association “to do a summit on how do we train teachers to de-escalate situations in their classrooms? How do we find support for the kids in the classroom?” Sears said.

‘Students Have No Boundaries’

LB 595 was introduced by Sen. Mike Groene in response to a 2014 incident where a teacher dragged an unruly 3rd grader by the ankles 90 feet to a timeout room. The teacher was fired, but was later reinstated by his district’s school board. (The teacher later said the incident reflected “bad judgment on my part.”)

Groene, a Republican who chairs the legislature’s education committee, told the Omaha World-Herald in a January article that “we’ve got to support the teachers so they can have control of the classroom. I hear from teachers all the time now that students have no boundaries.”

In addition to saying that teachers would not face legal action for using necessary physical force or restraint to protect students or school property, the bill also says that students removed from the classroom for being physically violent could not return without the teacher’s consent.

After Groene introduced the bill, the Nebraska State Education Association sent a email survey to 28,000 members. About 3,000 responses came back in three hours, Sears said, and 8,000 came back in the week that the survey was open. The vast majority agreed that discipline issues were a problem in their classroom, though teachers were not looking for free rein to get physical with students, Sears said.

The survey allowed teachers to share their stories. One came from a first-year teacher who was assaulted by a student and spent some time in the hospital. When the teacher came back, the child was still in the same classroom, Sears said. He added that teachers in rural parts of the state said there were few or no easily accessible resources for children who need behavioral or mental-health services.

Restraint Bill Touched on ‘Hot Button Issue’

Chris Proulx, a middle school physical education teacher and a former president of the Omaha Education Association, was also in favor of the bill. Teachers can’t always wait for security personnel to deal with students who are fighting with each other or damaging the classroom, he said.

“There are going to be times where you’re going to have to put your hands on a kid,” Proulx said. “If you leave a mark on a kid and you’re now suddenly in a really bad place. And your only fallback is, do you have legal representation if they’re going to sue you?”

That’s what the bill was trying to address, he said, and why he was in favor of it: “If you have to [physically restrain] a student, that you have some protection from litigation, as long as it’s reasonable and it’s a measured response.”

It’s a difficult issue, Proulx acknowledged. Requiring de-escalation training would eat into more of teachers’ time outside of the classroom, which is already taken up with other required efforts like suicide prevention and bullying awareness. And then there are questions about whether there is bias in discipline. But the current system doesn’t seem to be working for many educators, he said.

“Teachers are feeling like we’re enabling kids, because we don’t apply any consequences or the consequences that end up being applied are inconsequential,” he said.

The teachers’ union was the only educational organization that spoke in favor of the bill, even though it recognized that, as originally introduced, the law would run afoul of provisions under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that spell out when a child with a disability can and cannot be removed from the classroom, Sears said.

The bill also did not address any programs or frameworks that have been shown to improve school climate, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports. Sears said that’s what the state teachers’ union would like to see.

“We look at it as, ‘you’ve hit the hot button, senator,” he added. “There’s issues happening with classrooms and safety. Let’s try to craft something to help everybody.’ ”

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