March 6, 2013

Panel backs compromise on Maine student 'restraint' rules

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Legislature's Education Committee voted Wednesday to back a compromise reached by teachers, parents and disability rights groups on how much leeway teachers have in managing a disruptive student.

click image to enlarge

In this on Feb. 20, 2013 file photo, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, speaks to the media about his bill to ease limits on what teachers can do to restrain students in the Capitol rotunda. The Legislature’s education committee voted Wednesday to back a compromise reached by teachers, parents and disability rights groups on how much leeway teachers have to touch a disruptive student.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

A new rule that took effect this school year said Maine teachers couldn't use physical restraint unless the student or teacher was in imminent danger of harm. A bill was introduced this session to undo parts of that standard, but some supporters of the rule objected that the proposed changes would go too far.

The compromise language, explained Wednesday to the Education Committee, carves out an exception for "physical escort." That standard would allow temporary touching to "induce" a student to walk to another room without triggering the definition of the more serious "restraint," an action that requires extensive documentation and follow-up.

The group also agreed to eliminate the word "imminent" so that a teacher can act if he thinks the student is at risk of injury or harm, not just "imminent" risk.

Teachers said the original language of the bill would not let them help a student on the ground get to his feet, or let them put an arm around a student's shoulders to guide him out of a room, if the student was at all resistant. That kind of touch was considered "restraint."

"It was overly complicated on what we were trying to describe, so reasonable people couldn't interpret it," said Atlee Reilly, a staff attorney for the Disability Rights Center, who spoke on behalf of the groups that reached the compromise.

"I think (these changes) are going to go a long way to clearing that up."

The committee voted 12-1 that the bill, with the suggested amended language, should pass. It now goes to the Senate for a vote. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, sponsored the bill.

Rep. Madonna Soctomah, representing the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said she voted against the compromise language Wednesday because she opposed any physical restraint of a traditional student, saying teachers should verbally reason with him. She said she also opposed the rule changes last session.

The state's restraint and seclusion rules are known as Chapter 33. The tighter rules that took effect last fall came in response to reports that Maine students were being restrained inappropriately. It was the first overhaul of restraint rules in 10 years.

But within weeks of the new rule taking effect, teachers were reporting problems, primarily citing their inability to intervene if a student started destroying school property, according to the Maine Education Association. Because the student or teacher wasn't in "imminent" danger, the teachers felt they could not do anything to stop the student.

At a public hearing, several teachers described escorting an entire class out into a hallway in order to leave a single disruptive student alone in a classroom.

Among those supporting the compromise were the MEA, the Disability Rights Center, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities.

"We know that this may not solve everything," said John Kosinki, the lobbyist for the MEA. "You're never going to stop the student who grabs a computer and smashes it to the floor. But this gives teachers more tools to address the situation without it spinning out of control."

The ACLU of Maine, which had opposed Saviello's bill, said it endorsed the compromise.

"We are thrilled that the committee and key stakeholders worked together on a compromise that is good for both teachers and students," said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine.

"The issue of restraints in the classroom has spurred a great amount of thoughtful dialogue, and we are confident that this outcome protects safety and civil liberties for teachers and students."

More than 30 states have passed restraint legislation, and federal legislation has been proposed.

Noel Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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