Law & Courts

Senate Introduces Bill Limiting Restraints, Seclusion

By Nirvi Shah — December 20, 2011 3 min read
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A U.S. Senate bill filed late last week would limit physical restraint and locked seclusion of students—measures often used with students with disabilities who are considered out of control, harmful to themselves or others, or in need of being calmed.

Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s “Keeping All Students Safe Act,” is similar toa bill filed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in April. The U.S. House has previously passed the bill, but it wasn’t taken up by the Senate. However Rep. Miller’s bill has bipartisan support. Sen. Harkin’s bill has no cosponsors, at least not yet.

Among other things, the bill would: ban the use of physical restraints except in emergency situations; prohibit physical restraints that affect a student’s primary means of communication; forbid putting seclusion or restraint into a student’s individualized education program or IE; require states to collect data on the use of the measures, and ask schools to meet with parents and staff after a restraint is used and plan interventions that would prevent their use in the future.

“Every child should be educated in a supportive, caring, stimulating environment in which they are treated as an individual and provided with the tools they need to succeed,” Sen. Harkin said in a statement. “They should never be subjected to abusive or violent disciplinary strategies or left alone and unsupervised. This bill will set long-overdue standards to protect children from physical and psychological harm and ensure a safe learning environment for teachers and students alike.”

A Government Accountability Office study in 2009 about the use of the measures found some horrific scenarios. In one case a 7-year-old died after being held face down for hours by school staff. Some 5-year-olds were tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teachers, their arms broken and their noses bloodied. A 13-year-old reportedly hung himself in a seclusion room after being confined for hours.

Earlier this year, a report called “The Cost of Waiting” chronicled additional cases of death and injury because of restraints or seclusion and was intended to nudge the Senate into action.

Sen. Harkin’s office said groups supporting his bill include Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy, The Arc of the United States, the National Disabilities Rights Network and the Council of Parent and Attorney Advocates.

But the American Association of School Administrators has many concerns about Sen. Harkin’s proposal, finding its provisions overly prescriptive, and overreaching on an issue the organization believes is best left to states to address. More than 30 states have laws about restraint and seclusion, although their provisions vary.

In addition, the group takes objection with part of the bill that says restraints and seclusion could only be used in cases where a student might commit “serious bodily injury.” Because these measures are often used proactively, AASA legislative specialist Sasha Pudelski said, it can be difficult to predict exactly what kind of damage a child’s actions could do. That part of the bill could open school districts up to lawsuits.

They also believe the part of the bill that requires a debriefing with parents and staff involved in an episode of restraint or seclusion is cumbersome for districts. The meetings, the bill says, must happen five days after an incident.

While the Council for Exceptional Children largely supports the bill, the bill may require too big a group at such meetings, said Lindsay Jones, the group’s senior director for policy and advocacy services.

“We need to get the appropriate people at the debriefing,” she said, and school’s shouldn’t be set up for failure by not getting everyone at the meeting the bill requires.

However her organization disagrees on the point that rules about restraints and seclusion should be left to states. They have a model policy about the measures and much of it is reflected in Sen. Harkin’s bill.

“It would be good to have one consistent standard that says ‘We don’t use this except in an emergency’,” she said. “The nation’s students and educators in our schools, the staff in our schools would benefit from a consistent standard.”

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