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 on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. Teachers in the background wear matching red "Pride in Public Schools" t-shirts in support of Saviello's bill.
AUGUSTA — Teachers say a new state rule limiting what they can do to calm or control unruly students has made classrooms "chaotic and unpredictable," and left them helpless to do anything about it.
More than 75 people packed a hearing room at the State House on Wednesday to debate a bill that proposes to loosen the rule, known as Chapter 33.
The rule, which took effect in the fall, prohibits physical restraint unless a teacher or student is in "imminent danger" of harm. Educators say that definition of "restraint" is too narrow and is causing problems in the classroom.
Cyndy Fish, who teaches special education in the Bangor School District, said most teachers now remove all other students from a classroom when a single student gets disruptive -- and that disrupts the whole classroom.
"It's one thing when a child is interrupting their own learning. But to give that child the ability to interrupt every other child's learning? That shouldn't be allowed," said Fish, standing in front of about 30 other teachers at a media event Wednesday morning in the Hall of Flags.
But supporters of the rule, including some parents and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, say the limits were established for a reason and the current language should stand.
The teachers, all wearing red T-shirts, gathered before the public hearing at 1 p.m. on the bill submitted by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, to loosen the restraint rule. It would allow teachers to intervene faster and move a student against his will without triggering a restraint situation that must be documented with extensive written reports.
Among other things, the bill would consider picking up a child younger than 8, or temporarily touching or holding a student to get him to another location, to be a "physical escort," not restraint.
Saviello said he was "overwhelmed" when he heard about children who have figured out that teachers won't intervene if they refuse to move or go along with the teacher.
The current rule "was well-intended, but needs to be modified," he said.
Fish said the new rule has prompted teachers to significantly change some students' programs because they want to avoid situations where they might not be able to control a child with only verbal commands.
One student in her district didn't go out to recess for the first four months of the school year because the teachers knew they couldn't get him back inside without physically touching him, she said.
Entire classes aren't going on field trips because teachers know they won't be able to control particular students. Some special education students who used to visit regular classrooms during the day aren't allowed to do that anymore for the same reason, she said.
In the Mount Blue Regional School District, out-of-control students have caused "thousands of dollars in property damage," said Superintendent Mike Cormier. Another teacher reported classrooms in one school being evacuated 10 times so far this year because of disruptive students.
"Our teachers are now telling me students are losing valuable instruction time when an out-of-control student refuses to leave a classroom," Cormier said. "Children who witness this acting-out do not feel safe. They wonder why the grown-ups aren't doing anything about it or intervening. Schools feel chaotic and unpredictable."
A Department of Education official said the department supports the proposed changes.
"We believe it is the most expeditious way of fixing problems with rule Chapter 33," said Deb Friedman, director of policy and programs. The changes "could go a long way toward giving educators the tools they need to maintain control in a classroom, without creating a high risk of injury to students or staff."
Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesly said the teachers union supports the bill and wants to "put some sensibility" back into restraint and seclusion rules.
Several parents and educators spoke against the proposed changes during the hearing, which lasted five hours.
Deb Davis, who served on the group of stakeholders that crafted the restraint-rule language, said teachers should work on preventing disruptive behavior in the first place -- a view echoed by several people who spoke against the bill.
Davis said her son was restrained several years ago, leading her to get deeply involved in restraint and seclusion issues.
"I'm a parent, and I don't want you to touch my kid," she said bluntly, when asked if she thought some changes could be made, such as allowing a teacher to pick up a young child.
Several other parents echoed her comments, saying any unwelcome touch could lead to physical injury or trauma for the child.
Barbara Gunn, a member of the stakeholders group who runs a day treatment center, said touching a child should be "a last resort."
She said teachers should wait out an out-of-control student and, if it happens repeatedly, consider removing the child from that class.
Organizations opposing the changes include the ACLU of Maine, the Disability Rights Network in Maine and the Crisis Prevention Institute in Wisconsin.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the current rule protects teachers and students and shouldn't be changed.
"Rule 33 was crafted as part of a thoughtful yearlong process involving key stakeholders, educators and the Department of Education and it should not be gutted by legislators in a matter of days," Bellows said.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of Maine Education Association and a teacher on leave from the Freeport schools, also speaks in support of the bill at the pre-hearing rally.