Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series about discipline in Maine schools.

PORTLAND – Peter McCormack moves around the room as if the information he’s about to share can’t wait to get out.

In front of him are 17 Portland teachers, education technicians, social workers and others who have signed up for a three-day training course in how to use Therapeutic Crisis Intervention techniques in school.

Some of them will stay for a fourth day to learn how to do physical restraints or holds, a controversial practice allowed in Maine schools when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others and all other efforts to calm them have failed.

“You are the best tool in any crisis situation,” McCormack tells the teachers. “There are so many things you can do before resorting to physical intervention. Restraint truly is the intervention of last resort.”

McCormack invited The Portland Press Herald to cover a recent training session in the hope of shedding light on a practice that is being scrutinized here in Maine and across the nation. Pressure is on to reduce the use of restraints, and many Maine schools are responding with increased training in alternative intervention methods and positive student supports.

In general, the methods call for building personal relationships with students, setting clear expectations for behavior, recognizing when and why students may be struggling or acting out, and responding with logic and compassion rather than anger and contempt.

“When a child is upset, it didn’t happen out of nowhere, folks,” McCormack says during the first day of training. “There’s always a cause. It may not be right in front of you, but it’s there. You have to know your child. And depending on your response, you’re either going to throw gasoline on the situation or you’re going to throw water on the situation.”

McCormack is the newly appointed assistant principal at East End Community School, which accounted for 36 of the 59 restraints reported in Portland schools last year. For the last decade he was director of the district’s West School, which serves 50 children with serious behavioral challenges and reported seven restraints last year.

In his former role, McCormack became a certified crisis intervention trainer and has trained dozens of Portland school employees.

Superintendent Jim Morse has charged McCormack and East End Principal Marcia Gendron, also newly appointed from her former job as principal of Reiche Community School, with greatly reducing the number of restraints at East End.

“More often than not, the use of restraint only escalates a situation,” Morse said. “Our goal is to keep kids in school and keep them learning. We want teachers to have the skill sets in their toolbox to de-escalate disruptive situations and help youngsters refocus.”

Morse said he wants to reduce the overall number of physical restraints in Portland schools, which last year included seven at Longfellow Elementary School, four at Riverton Community School, three at Lyseth Elementary School and two at Moore Middle School. Nine other Portland public schools reported no restraints.

Moreover, Morse said, he wants all Portland schools to have a more positive and personal approach to behavior and discipline. With that in mind, he’s moving to adopt a federally endorsed system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports across Maine’s largest school district.

More than 300 Maine educators attended a PBIS conference in Augusta in May and more than 50 Maine schools have started implementing the system, including Riverton, Lyseth and Clifford elementary schools in Portland.

The system shows teachers how to define and teach appropriate behaviors for all students. The goal is to create a positive school climate and ultimately provide behavior skills that will help students be successful in life. The system emphasizes modeling and rewarding good behavior — what it looks like to treat others with respect, for instance — rather than highlighting and punishing bad behavior. Teachers develop strategies as a team, with input from students and parents.

Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams understands that some people may question whether behavior should be taught in schools. In the past, students were expected to toe the line or get kicked out. But young people today have few career options without at least a high school education, and teachers can’t count on parents to teach their children how to behave.

“We have a responsibility to teach kids what we expect from them in school,” Williams said. “A lot of that depends on teachers having personal relationships with their students. For some teachers, that comes naturally. For others, it doesn’t. But kids come with a variety of skills and needs today, like it or not, and that’s our job.”

The responsibility of training teachers in positive interventions is falling on local school districts because few undergraduate teaching programs across the country provide the instruction, said Pat Red, an education instructor at the University of Southern Maine. She’s also the state coordinator for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

“If they do get the training, it’s often because they’re special education teachers, because the thought has been that special education students need positive interventions but other students don’t,” Red said. “But that’s ridiculous. Research has shown that 46 percent of all new teachers in the United States leave the profession within five years, and almost half of them cite student behavior problems as the reason they leave.”

In McCormack’s crisis intervention training sessions, many of the teachers seem relieved to be learning skills that will help them prevent behavior problems and avoid the need for physical restraints.

“I think the whole district should be trained in this,” says Florence Grimard, an education technician at Clifford Elementary School.

Chris Salamone, a social worker at the West School, understands Grimard’s relief. Salamone is McCormack’s partner in the training sessions and he knows the challenges that teachers face in the classroom.

“When they arrive on our doorstep, they come with a lot of baggage,” Salamone says. That includes students from troubled homes, where substance and domestic abuse are common, and average homes, where parents are dealing with a struggling economy, unemployment, divorce, illness and other challenges.

On the fourth day of training, some teachers express a reluctance to learn how to do physical restraints. Only eight of the original 17 participants remain.

“As an educator, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ever having to do a restraint,” says Steve Best, an education technician at East End School.

McCormack says Best’s concern isn’t surprising. Many teachers find the practice unsettling, even exhausting, and fear the liability of being one of few people trained for such a controversial intervention. Some administrators say they don’t want too many staff members to receive restraint training because it may encourage them to use it.

Best and the others begin the restraint training, practicing with each other the techniques that McCormack and Salamone have demonstrated. They work in pairs, carefully positioning their bodies on each side of a calm colleague who is filling the role of a child in distress.

They extend their arms and lower the person, face down, to a cushioned floor mat and place their bodies snugly on either side, holding the person’s arms and legs still. McCormack and Salamone critique their efforts. They remind the teachers to avoid putting any pressure on the person’s back or restricting breathing or speech.

Through it all, it’s apparent that the adult playing the role of a child isn’t screaming and squirming and trying to get away. McCormack and Salamone admit that it’s not so easy to perform a restraint when a child is upset and in real danger of hurting himself or others.

“My hope is we’ve given you enough skills over the past three days that you will never have to do a restraint,” McCormack says. “The scariest thing is not knowing what to do. It adds to the anxiety. It’s like pouring fuel on the fire.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]