September 27, 2013

Maine data on student restraint, seclusion to help guide policies

The state gets its first batch of data on physical control of students as it works to define best practices for safety and teacher training.

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

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20130926_ Seclusion
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This "Thinking Room" at an elementary school in Southern Maine has bean bag chairs and mats for problem kids to sit in seclusion and think about their behavior, according to the school's principal. Maine schools reported that more than 850 students were physically restrained and hundreds were placed in seclusion in the last year, according to the first statewide data on the sometimes controversial methods that schools use to handle out-of-control students.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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The reporting rules were adopted in response to parents and disability advocates who argued that too many children were being restrained unnecessarily and inappropriately.

"These are potentially dangerous interventions and they're not effective in reducing behaviors," said Atlee Reilly, staff attorney for the Maine Disability Rights Center, which has advocated for parents and students. "I think people should be asking some questions about these numbers."

Deb Davis, who is active on the issue and served on a group that helped rewrite Maine's restraint law, said she is glad that the statewide information is now available. She said she wasn't told when her elementary school-age son had been restrained, despite multiple meetings with administrators about his behavioral issues.

The data will help parents to know they aren't alone, she said.

"When this happens to you, it's very shocking. You feel violated because you feel stripped of your parental rights. ... This (data) un-isolates some people," Davis said.

She is working on another state committee to draw up best practices for avoiding confrontations that lead to restraint or seclusion. The new state data shows the need for such practices, she said.

"These are really big numbers," said Davis. "If I was a parent, I would have a knot in my stomach, asking why are schools having so many restraints or seclusions for children with behavioral problems."

Most people in the debate agree that restraint and seclusion are needed to help students in crisis and keep them safe, but there is disagreement about when and how to use them.

Among the complaints in Maine were that parents were not notified of multiple incidents involving their children. Advocates also argued that schools did not have clear and consistent definitions of what constituted restraint or seclusion.

A bill in 2009 to prohibit face-down physical restraint died in a legislative committee. The Department of Education then gathered about 25 educators, children's advocates and disability specialists, who proposed the changes. It was the first overhaul of the rules on restraint in 10 years.

DATA INCONCLUSIVE BUT USEFUL

Reilly said the new data is not specific enough to allow conclusions. He said a large number of incidents in a district might be concentrated at a particular school, and within a particular program.

That is the case in Lewiston, which had the highest numbers for a school district. The district has a day treatment center for special-needs students in one of its schools, which skewed the numbers because they are reported "by building."

Superintendent Bill Webster said that of the 449 instances of physical restraint reported in the district, 359 were at the day treatment center.

The Department of Education plans to follow up with schools, said its spokeswoman, Samantha Warren.

"Now that schools have reported this information to us, the department will review and follow up on data that indicates a potential need for technical assistance or further training and continue to work with schools to reduce the needs for these kinds of intervention," Warren said in an email.

The new data, available at www.maine.gov/doe/school-safety/restraints/index.html, shows how many incidents of restraint and seclusion occurred in each district that reported, and the number of students involved. It also shows whether students or teachers suffered "serious bodily injury."

Five school districts reported injuries to students, saying there were "fewer than 10."

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