Special Education

Initiative Tightens Scrutiny on Restraint, Seclusion in Spec. Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — January 23, 2019 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’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.

On Jan. 17, the agencies outlined three areas that they will focus on: conducting compliance reviews of school districts; providing resources on the law and on interventions that could “reduce the need for less effective and potentially dangerous practices"; and 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.”

Students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of the overall student population, but they comprise 71 percent of the students who are restrained in school and 66 percent of those who are secluded, based on records from the 2015-16 school year from the department’s civil rights office.

Incidents Draw Attention

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the focus on the issue was driven by an increase in the number of reported restraint and seclusion cases. For example, in the 2015-16 school year, about 122,000 students nationwide were reported to be restrained or secluded or both, up from nearly 70,000 students reported to the department from the 2013-14 school year.

There have also been a number of news reports on restraint and seclusion, Hill said. In one recent case, 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.

The department plans to use data, news reports, and information from students, parents, advocacy groups, and community organizations to drive its compliance reviews, Hill said. Such reviews do not mean that there has been a violation of federal law, however.

The focus on data collection also comes in the wake of several news stories about “inconsistencies and anomalies” in seclusion and restraint data, which is collected each year by the office for civil rights. For example, an Education Week analysis of restraint and seclusion for the 2013-14 school year found that nearly 80 percent of school districts reported no instances of the practices, including the 1 million-student New York City district and the 360,000-student Chicago district.

The civil rights office “will conduct data quality reviews to ensure the accuracy of data. This includes working directly with districts to provide information and technical assistance to ensure that districts are not only aware of reporting obligations, but have the technical support to develop mechanisms that provide for accurate reporting,” Hill said.

An advocacy group said that restraint and seclusion needs focused attention.

“We didn’t know [the announcement] was coming, but certainly we’ve been hammering the issue for a long time,” said Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys.

Of particular importance, Marshall said, was getting solid numbers on the usage of restraint and seclusion.

“We are proponents of data, and we absolutely believe it’s important,” Marshall said. “But what good is it if you don’t use it for trends? If you’re not going to do any kind of drill down or investigation, then you’re not going to see the change that you need.”

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools said it supported the department’s proposed actions.

“Restraint and seclusion are dangerous practices that cause students trauma and have resulted in injury, and even death. School personnel can also be injured when imposing restraint and seclusion. Though the use of restraint and seclusion is widespread, national data indicates that students with disabilities are roughly 20 times more likely than their peers without disabilities to be restrained and/or secluded. All of our nation’s students deserve better,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, the organization’s executive director, in a statement.

Guiding Principles

In 2012, the Education Department released a document that provided 15 principles school leaders should consider when developing restraint and seclusion policies. The nonbinding document 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.

In 2010, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have outlawed restraint and seclusion, but a similar measure died in the Senate that year.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Initiative Tightens Scrutiny on Restraint, Seclusion in Spec. Ed.

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