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Democrats Seek to Sharply Curtail Restraint, Seclusion of Students

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 13, 2018 3 min read
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Democrats on Capitol Hill are seeking to ban the practice of isolating students in special rooms or otherwise secluding them in schools that receive federal funds, and to limit when students can be physically restrained.

The Keeping All Students Safe Act would also require schools to notify parents within 24 hours when their child has been physically restrained, and to require states to collect and publish data on restraint and seclusion, including reports of injuries or death.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who’s the top Democrat on the House education committee and is poised to become the panel’s chairman next year, and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., are the authors of the bill. Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington state and Chris Murphy of Connecticut are slated to introduce a companion bill in the Senate (Murray is the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.)

Restraint and seclusion is a particularly big issue in the special education community, although a House Democratic aide indicated the lawmakers’ ongoing concern about the issue extends beyond students with disabilities. Advocates say the official statistics about the restraint and seclusion of students almost certainly underestimate the true number of such incidents, and that many of the practices lead to long-term trauma as well as physical injuries. Educators say it’s a difficult issue for them, because they say they must sometimes balance the need for safe and secure classrooms with the health and welfare of some of their most vulnerable students.

An Education Week analysis found that close to 70,000 special education students were restrained or secluded in public schools in the 2013-14 school year, or about one out of every 100 of those students.

The bill is set to be introduced Wednesday, so you can’t call it the first education legislation Democrats are introducing after taking control of the House. And it doesn’t have a great chance of passing by any stretch in this lame-duck period of Congress. But they plan to re-introduce the bill when the next Congress starts in January, and clearly it’s an issue where they think they can make at least some political headway.

One out of every 100 students in special education was restrained or secluded from his or her peers, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection from the 2013-14 school year that’s based on information reported by districts. About 30 states now have policies designed to limit the use of restraint and seclusion, a number that’s been growing in recent years.

“Every school should be a safe and welcoming place where all students can get a quality education. Unfortunately, thousands of students are still subjected to dangerous seclusion and restraint practices, which research shows make schools less safe,” Scott said in a statement. “While it is encouraging that some states have begun to prohibit or limit the use of seclusion and restraint, it is important that Congress pass the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would establish a nationwide minimum safety standard. Moreover, this legislation would provide states and teachers the support they need to improve their schools’ culture by using on evidence-based interventions.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act also requires states to show how they plan to reduce “aversive behavioral interventions.”

A version of this proposal was first introduced by Democrats in 2009, and lawmakers have proposed it in subsequent years without success—legislation came close to passing in 2010. Democrats’ concerns also are rooted in racial disparities: A 2009 Government Accountability Office report that led to the original bill found that restraint and seclusion practices were used disproportionately on students of color. Congress has asked for an update to that GAO report.

In addition, the Keeping All Students Safe Act would:

  • prohibit the use of physical restraints, except to protect other students and staff;
  • prohibit the use of chemical and mechanical restraints, and physical restraints that affect breathing;
  • prohibit the use of physical restraint as a planned intervention; and
  • require staff members to be certified before they used physical restraint under minimum standards;

Photo: Brian Long, left, and Kim Long, right, with their son Brennan Long. Brennan was left with two shattered thigh bones after being restrained by a staff member in his Louisville school in 2014. (Sam Upshaw Jr./Louisville Courier-Journal-File)

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