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Senate bill on the use of restraint would tie school leaders’ hands

The bill proposes that restraints can be used in emergency situations by trained personnel, but only when the student is at risk of imposing “serious bodily injury” to himself or others.

Learning Leadership column, May 2012 edition of eSchool NewsIn the 1990s I was the superintendent for an intermediate school agency that provided the special-education services for its component school districts. We operated facilities that housed students that were not being mainstreamed with the local population. The push for mainstreaming was well under way, and many parents would petition the local schools to have their children educated there. In the case of some of the students with severe emotional and behavior issues, the local schools did not have the trained staff, equipment, or facilities to ensure that the students would be kept from harming themselves or others. Consequently, they became our students.

Twenty years later, every effort is made to educate all special-education students within the mainstream population. Both special-education and mainstream staff are trained to effectively deal with students whose behavior might result in injury to themselves or others. Administrators in those schools must ensure the safety of all students and staff in the building.

Recently the U.S. Senate introduced a bill, the “Keeping All Students Safe Act,” that would prohibit the use of seclusion and restraint, the very practice that has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioral conditions to be educated in the least restrictive and safest environment possible. Supporting the bill is an advocacy community that is rightfully concerned with incidents where the use of seclusion and restraint has resulted in injury and, in some cases, the death of students. The education community again finds itself caught in the middle between providing all children with the opportunity to be educated in the least restrictive environment and at the same time protecting those very children from harming themselves or staff and other children in the immediate vicinity who might be injured during the course of a violent behavior episode.

To assess the situation in the field and to provide our legislators with some guidance, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conducted a survey of school administrators throughout the country to get an idea of how often seclusion and restraint was used and how often school personnel were injured as a result of working with students who had to be secluded or restrained. The full report can be found at http://www.aasa.org/uploadedFiles/Resources/Tool_Kits/AASA-Keeping-Schools-Safe.pdf.

Ten percent of the respondents indicated that, over the course of the school year, seclusion and restraint was necessary and unavoidable more than five percent of the time. In that same period of time, 25 percent of the respondents indicated more than 20 incidents of a staff member being physically threatened or attacked by a student. Over a five-year period, 30 percent of administrators reported at least five incidents requiring medical attention for staff. Seclusion and restraint is used, and it does lead to injuries. What is not known is how many more injuries to children and staff would occur without the use of seclusion and restraint. It is conceivable that the prohibition of these techniques will lead to a greater number of students being moved back into residential placement or private special-education facilities.

The Senate bill proposes that restraints can be used in emergency situations by trained personnel, but only when the student is at risk of imposing “serious bodily injury” to himself or others. We are concerned that this provision will cause staff to hesitate to act on a timely basis as they try to anticipate whether the student’s behavior will result in serious bodily injury to someone or not. If a student pushes another student, it might only result in the student simply stumbling backwards. But what if the pushed student falls backwards and smashes his head on a hard floor, resulting in a serious head injury? Was the staff member supposed to predict the result of the push? If the staff person did not act, will he or she then be subjected to disciplinary action and a probable lawsuit? This is a no-win situation. As it stands now, the technique is used to prevent injuries, not to determine the extent of possible injury in the aftermath of an incident.

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