PORTLAND — Even the staunchest opponents to revising Maine’s student restraint and seclusion laws are accepting proposed changes that would loosen the existing law.

“Overall I am really pleased (with the changes),” said Deb Davis, a disability rights advocate who helped draft the law. “I was losing sleep last week and I am totally at peace now that they have minimized it to very few changes.”

Davis was part of a group opposed to LD 243 as it was originally proposed by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton. They claimed it would have gutted the restraint and seclusion law, which was passed in June 2012 after a 2010 series published by The Forecaster revealed that physical restraint was being used frequently in Maine schools, in some cases in violation of existing policies.

Saviello presented his changes to the law in February after he and the Maine Education Association heard complaints that the law was too limiting for teachers.

His proposed changes removed a ban on “physical escort,” allowed for a “brief period of physical restriction” by person-to-person contact, and allowed restraint and seclusion of students when precise circumstances are described in a written document signed by a student’s parent.

The revised changes to Chapter 33, which will be presented to the Legislature later this month, “aren’t too major” Davis said. 

Changes include allowing shepherding of students to another location and remove the word “voluntary” from the equation. Previously, students could not be “shepherded” if they did move voluntarily. This change allows a teacher or supervisor to place a hand on the student’s back to guide the student out of a situation that could pose harm to them or others.

Chapter 33 originally said physical restraint could only be used when there was “imminent” risk of danger or harm to the student or others. The revision also removes the word “imminent,” which proved to be vague and confusing for teachers.

Finally, the revision requires the Department of Education to develop better guidance for teachers and school districts and to report back to the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs in January 2014 on the efficacy of the new rules after they are implemented.

Overall, Davis said the changes don’t take away from the original intention of the law, which was to keep students safe.

“The changes aren’t so major that they take away from the integrity of the original rule,” she said, “and I think they were done to help teachers feel comfortable and a little less restricted.”

When Saviello’s bill was originally proposed, Davis said it was not the rule that was the problem, but the lack of guidance for teachers on when restraint was necessary and allowed and how to do so properly.

Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Maine Department of Education, said the department has already begun to work on better resources for teachers.

She said there is a webinar and information sheet available on the department’s website, and officials are working to get the information into a more “user-friendly format.”

“We are talking with the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Management Association to put the information in a more usable format as far as what is restraint and what isn’t, when you can use it and when you can’t, and put together scenarios to show people here is what you can do, here is what you can’t do, here is what you might try,” Friedman said. “We think that might be more useful to people in the field than questions and answers.”

She said that while the department will provide guidance to teachers about particular situations where restraint is appropriate, it will not provide training on proper restraint holds; that work will have to be done by an outside company.

“There are 10 approved training companies on our Department of Education website that you could contact and arrange for more intensive training on how to de-escalate a situation and how to do a restraint,” Friedman said.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, who stood behind Saviello’s original proposal, said the association also backs the latest revisions.

“This is the way it really should work when we are talking about education,” she said. “We should have all the voices at the table and we can come up with what is best by working together. What we have put forth are compromises and we have every belief that they will be just fine and meet the needs of both groups.”

She said the caveat is that the Department of Education must report on potential dysfunctions by next January, but she feels the new proposal will take care of the issues that have come up in the past.

Rachel Healy, director of communications for the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization will be watching the department to ensure that it informs administrators, educators and parents about the rules so there is a “statewide understanding, rather than confusion.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at [email protected] or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.

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