Rhode Island officials want to help educators determine when and how to physically restrain students.

Schools often have no clear guidelines, but a draft policy developed by the state Department of Education would limit use of physical restraints to situations in which a child poses a threat to himself or classmates. The draft guidelines were written specifically for students with special needs.

“There was no consistent policy about how to address the need for physical intervention,” said Jennifer Wood, a lawyer for the state education department. “You have to have a plan in the event of an emergency.”

The proposed regulations were presented to the Rhode Island Board of Regents Dec. 14. The public will have 30 days to offer comment, including at a public hearing.

Parents and others expressed concern more than a year ago that a tragic accident could occur unless the department established a policy on the use of physical restraints.

A committee of teachers, parents, and others studied the issue and came up with a policy that spells out when physical force can be used.

The proposal defines what kinds of punishment are not allowed, including the use of unpleasant sprays; any intervention that denies sleep, food, water, or shelter; verbal abuse or humiliation, and prolonged seclusion.

The guidelines also say that physical restraint should only be used when a child poses a significant threat to himself or others, and even then, the restraint should never cause pain or trauma.

Physical interventions should always be used as a last resort and never as a substitute for a systematic plan, the policy states. And schools would not be allowed to restrain a child without parental consent.