School Climate & Safety

Senate Hearing Showcases Alternatives to Restraints

July 17, 2012 7 min read
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Witnesses at a U.S. Senate hearing last week shared some of the concrete steps they have taken to change the behavior of sometimes violent children—without holding them down, tying them up, or locking them in rooms alone.

The hearing, a first in the Senate, was intended to illuminate alternatives to restraint and seclusion. The techniques, used most often on students with disabilities, have come under fire for the last few years as numerous reports documented deaths or injuries of students following the use of restraints or isolation at school.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, is the sole sponsor of a bill that would sharply restrict these practices and ban seclusion outright.

“The use of these outdated and outmoded techniques means that students may have access to the school building but are being excluded from instruction,” Mr. Harkin said.

While many of the reports and previous testimony on the subject in the House of Representatives have centered on horror stories in which students were severely injured or died because they were restrained or isolated without supervision, last week’s discussion concentrated on how schools and students can use alternative techniques and address the behavior that may have led educators to use those tactics in the first place.

The witnesses—school- and district-level administrators, a university-based disability advocacy center director, and a parent—all emphasized the need for training and planning to avoid restraining and secluding students.

But that training and planning isn’t easily swapped for those practices, said Daniel Crimmins, the director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

He endorses using positive behavioral interventions and supports, in which educators identify students’ areas of weakness and then address them with progressively intensive interventions.

“It is an approach proven to be effective, safe, and respectful of all,” he said. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education about restraint and seclusion said some 17,000 schools are using positive interventions.

A Mother’s Story

Debbie Jackson, the mother of 9-year-old Elijah, spoke about how positive reinforcement for good behavior was one of the ways her son was able to change his once-disruptive behavior. She said educators at Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa., a school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, helped change Elijah’s behavior dramatically—without holding him down or isolating him as they had in the traditional public elementary school he had attended before Centennial. After 2½ years at Centennial, Elijah transferred out in March. He will attend 4th grade in the fall in a regular classroom at a traditional elementary school.

“In many schools, so often the focus is on bad behaviors. That focus causes those behaviors to continue rather than eliminates them,” Ms. Jackson said to Mr. Harkin. (Only one other senator from the 22-member committee, Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., attended.) “I believe with all my heart that Centennial School saved my son’s life,” added Ms. Jackson.

While the hearing’s witnesses favored a federal law that would crack down on the use of restraint and seclusion—Mr. Crimmins at one point said it was up to Congress, not the Education Department, to act—support for such a law is far from universal.

The American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va., opposes any federal law governing restraints and seclusion, and the group affirmed its position in a new report last week that says school administrators must be able to restrain and seclude students.

In the report, the organization says it “is confident that the overwhelming majority of school personnel are acting to protect students when employing seclusion and restraint interventions.”

The group points to the many state laws that have been passed limiting restraint and isolation or specifying when these techniques can be used and says that the Senate bill would undermine some of them. Some provisions of the proposed federal law, such as requiring schools to hold debriefings shortly after a student is restrained that include all the teachers and staff involved, and collect and report data on these incidents, would be cumbersome, the AASA says.

A previous version of the Keeping All Students Safe Act passed the House when Democrats ruled that chamber, but the current version, sponsored by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has not had a hearing.

That’s because House education committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., is concerned that federal intervention could obstruct state efforts to regulate the practices and do more harm than good.

Role of Training

Mr. Harkin said with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently called the No Child Left Behind Act, at a standstill, he is unlikely to advance federal legislation on restraints and seclusion this year.

In general, students are supposed to be restrained or secluded only when they are in immediate danger of hurting themselves or someone else. Critics say too often these practices are used to discipline students or remove disruptive students from class. Part of the problem: Many teachers and school staff don’t have the training needed to use the measures safely or to devise alternative ways to calm students and keep the children and themselves safe. The Senate and House versions of the Keeping All Students Safe Act would authorize grant money to states and school districts to be used on training related to managing students’ behavior.

At Centennial School, it wasn’t laws or rules that changed the school’s ways, Director Michael George told the Senate committee. Rather, it was training and a change in the school’s culture. Within a year of taking over the school some 14 years ago, Mr. George said he eliminated its two seclusion rooms and dramatically cut the number of times students were physically restrained.

“We effectively broke a 20-year trend of seclusion and restraint at the Centennial School,” he said of his school, which draws its students from 40 surrounding districts. “As compared to 14 years ago, truancy is down by 50 percent. The rate of suspensions is down by 88 percent. Physical restraints are rare.

“The one thing that has not changed ... is the type of students that we enter into the program,” he continued. “As a field, we have the technical knowledge necessary to reform chaotic and violent school environments.”

‘Perfect Storm’

Restraint and seclusion have surged to the forefront in recent years partly due to several factors converging at schools, said Reece L. Peterson, a professor of special education and communication disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a specialist on alternatives to restraint and seclusion.

“It reflects the situation many educators find themselves in: We have more workload in terms of larger classes due to budget cuts, compounded by the focus on test scores,” he said in an interview. “When you add high-needs kids to that mix ... and the support services for those kids aren’t there, ... it becomes a perfect storm of problems.”

Mr. Harkin said he appreciated the panel members’ proactive approaches, but, he said, he’s often approached by educators who insist that restraints and seclusion are necessary. “You’re just going to let that kid beat teachers up?” he said he is asked.

In response, Mr. Crimmins said: “We would never support a law that said an administrator shouldn’t exercise judgment in an emergency situation to keep everyone safe. And if safety is preserved with a physical restraint by a trained person, I know that’s allowed in Georgia law.”

But restraint and seclusion don’t change children’s behavior, he said.

“In fact, seclusion and restraint can escalate a child’s arousal, deepen negative behavior patterns, and undermine the child’s trust and capacity for learning,” Mr. Crimmins said.

In the 9,600-student Montgomery County, Va., public schools, Cyndi Pitonyak said the district’s approach is individualized, with behavior plans developed for each student who needs one—and the planning process includes the students when possible.

“The most important step is to help the student replace the problem behavior with a positive behavior that serves the same purpose,” said Ms. Pitonyak, the district’s coordinator of positive behavior interventions and supports, at the hearing. “When there is a crisis, we carefully document and analyze what happened in order to learn from the experience and adjust our supports for the student if necessary.”

However, the AASA, in its report, says the vision of a school where students with disabilities can be kept on task and calm without restraint and seclusion is “unrealistic.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Senate Hearing Showcases Alternatives to Restraints

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