Friday, March 7, 2014
Editor's Note: This is part of an occasional series on discipline in Maine schools.
The Disability Rights Center of Maine challenged the state Department of Education on Thursday to improve the makeshift way it handles complaints about the use of physical restraint and seclusion on schoolchildren.
The center's lawyers acted after Education Commissioner Angela Faherty informed them that two complaints, filed in June on behalf of two students in different school districts, lacked sufficient detail to determine whether investigations are warranted.
"If you still wish the department to consider this matter, kindly provide as much detail as possible," Faherty wrote in an Oct. 5 letter addressing one of the complaints.
The complaints in question contained enough information to prompt investigations, said Diane Smith, a lawyer for the center. The center's lawyers plan to turn over documents they have gathered from each district, but they say the department is setting the bar too high in what is supposed to be a parent-friendly process.
"What they're saying is, 'Until you do our work for us, we're not going to investigate this,'" Smith said. "If these families weren't represented by us, their complaints wouldn't be investigated. Meanwhile, these students are attending school in an environment that's unsafe. (State officials) should have contacted us months ago if they had questions about the complaints."
Smith wouldn't identify the students or their districts.
No formal complaint process exists in the department's rules on physical restraint and seclusion of students. Both are allowed when prescribed in individual special education plans, or in emergencies to control a disturbance or when students' safety is at risk.
The department established a temporary complaint process last year when the rules came under scrutiny in the Legislature. The Disability Rights Center of Maine filed several complaints last year that the department handled appropriately, Smith said. A recent staffing change and a lack of consistent protocols is likely to blame for the new approach to parents' concerns, she said.
The lack of a clear and consistent complaint process is one of several deficiencies identified by parents, advocates, lawmakers and others who are calling for improvements in the department's rules on restraint and seclusion. Department officials have said they plan to convene a panel of stakeholders later this year to review the rules. Smith expects to be one of them.
The Department of Education didn't respond to a request for comment on Smith's concerns, which she outlined in a letter e-mailed to Faherty on Thursday.
Faherty responded to Smith with this e-mail: "Thank you, Diane, for bringing these important issues and considerations to our attention. The work group is preparing to help improve the process and establish appropriate protocols as you indicated are truly needed."
The two complaints that Faherty found lacking clearly identified the students involved, their schools, their classrooms and their special education diagnoses, Smith said.
The complaints also said that each district poorly documented and failed to notify parents of multiple incidents of physical restraint or seclusion -- which is when a student is purposely separated from others, often in another room.
In one complaint, the use of physical restraint wasn't prescribed in the student's individual education plan, Smith said. Also, staff members failed to notify the school nurse when they held the student in a face-down or prone restraint.
In the other complaint, the student was restrained by one staff member when two were required, Smith said.
She said it doesn't make sense to require detailed complaints when parents often know little about alleged incidents and have limited access to school reports, and even those documents may lack the desired detail.
"The process needs to be simple, clear and consistent across the state," Smith said. "Because in most cases, all a parent can do is report that (an incident) occurred."
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: