Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton
The state's teachers would be given more leeway to intervene physically when dealing with a disruptive student under a bill scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday.
The current rule, which took effect in the fall, prohibits physical restraint unless a teacher is in "imminent danger" of harm. It is being challenged by educators who say the definition of "restraint" is too narrow and the resulting reluctance to intervene is leading to property damage and staff injuries.
"Educators can't be left having to debate what is allowed when our students or staff may be in a risky situation," said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers.
The bill proposed by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, would loosen the rule known as Chapter 33. It would allowing teachers to intervene faster and move a student against his or her will without triggering a "restraint" situation that must be documented with extensive written reports.
"We need our educators to focus on teaching again. I am hopeful this bill will allow them to do that while keeping both our students and staff safe in the classroom. I want teachers to teach!" Saviello said in a statement Tuesday.
Among other things, his bill would consider picking up a child under 8 years old, or temporarily touching or holding a student to get them to another location, to be a "physical escort," not restraint.
Supporters of the existing rule oppose the change and say teachers are driven by convenience, not the child's best interest.
"Where is the compassion? Where is the understanding that a student is having a tough time?" asked parent Deb Davis, who had a hand in devising the current rule and opposes Saviello's bill. "Using restraint in the classroom to restore order? If I was (another child) in the classroom, it would really upset me. It sounds barbaric to me."
The new rule, which took effect last fall, came in response to reports of Maine students being restrained inappropriately. It was the first overhaul of the restraint rules in Maine in 10 years.
Among other things, the new rule required districts to report to the state the number of times they put students in restraint or seclusion. Schools do not have to report the circumstances of each incident.
The statewide figures will not be available until the end of the year, but district officials in Portland, the state's largest school district with almost 7,000 students, said they had 52 incidents of restraint and 53 incidents of seclusion in the first quarter of the 2012-13 school year. In neighboring South Portland, which has about 3,100 students, the district reported 101 restraint incidents and 55 seclusions.
Frequently, the same students need restraint or seclusion, sometimes as part of a recommended therapy agreed upon by parents and doctors. In the Portland figures, for example, one student was placed in seclusion 34 times.
In 2009, a bill to prohibit face-down physical restraint died in a legislative committee. The Maine Department of Education then gathered about 25 educators, children's advocates and disability specialists, who proposed the changes that led to the new rules.
But within weeks of the new rule taking effect, teachers were reporting problems, according to Kilby-Chesley, of the MEA. The Maine Principals' Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association also support Saviello's bill.
Under existing language, a teacher who touches a student without the student's permission -- even, for example, to pick up a first-grader who is having a temper tantrum -- meets the definition of "restraint." That triggers paperwork, a group review committee, notification of parents, reports to the state and the creation of a plan to avoid a future situation.
Previously, the definition of "restraint" was largely considered to apply to more extreme situations in which a teacher felt compelled to use physical force to regain control of a seriously disruptive student, usually a special education student. The current rule applies to all students.
Restraint techniques can range from teachers using their hands to physically move a child, wrapping their arms around students from behind in a seated "basket hold" or placing students face-down on the ground to physically control their bodies.
In more extreme situations, a student could be put in seclusion, defined as alone in a small room designated for that purpose.
Both sides of the issue agree that there is still a need for restraint and seclusion with some students. The recent debate has centered on situations at the lower end of the scale: A student ripping down posters in a classroom, or a young child refusing to come in from the playground even after the bell has rung.
Both of those examples have been pointed to as examples of a gray area, when the child and educators may not be in "imminent danger" but the situation is disruptive and could call for physical intervention.
Davis said educators should be working on prevention efforts, not loosening the definition of restraint. That said, she understands the teachers' concerns and supports more training about the existing rule.
"Now they are dealing with problems like a student is acting out and they need to shepherd them out of classroom and it becomes 'restraint.' They're freaked out about what to do," Davis said. "And I can see why that's confusing. The department (of education) needs to create better guidance.
"I hope common sense prevails."
The U.S. Department of Education published a study last year estimating there were 38,792 cases of student seclusion or restraint in the 2009-10 school year.
More than 30 states have passed restraint legislation, and federal legislation has been proposed.
The public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. before the Education Committee, in Room 202 of the Cross Building.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: