When students pose a threat to themselves or others, educators sometimes need to restrain them or remove them to a separate space. That’s supposed to be a last resort, and it’s a controversial practice. As we’ve reported recently, school districts don’t always follow state laws or federal reporting requirements.
Though there are guidelines around restraint and seclusion in schools, there are no federal laws governing how they can be used. And they’re most often used on students with disabilities or special needs, and boys, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Jennifer Tidd’s son falls into both those categories. He has autism and behavioral issues, and over three years — from 2013 to 2016 — he was restrained or secluded more than 400 times by his Fairfax County, Va., school, according to an investigation by member station WAMU. Tidd says the repeated seclusions traumatized her son, causing him to hate school and making him more violent and distrusting of authority figures.
“He would poop and pee himself to get out of the seclusion room — he was so desperate to get out,” she recalls. “This is a child who was completely potty trained since he was 5. … That to me, for a nonverbal person, that’s absolute desperation.”
These practices are covered by a patchwork of policies, guidelines and regulations that differ from school district to school district. That can make it difficult to understand when, why and how often students are secluded and restrained.
Often, educators told WAMU, they don’t want to seclude and restrain students, but when students become a danger to themselves, other students or teachers, many feel like they don’t have other options. Some educators have reported experiencing significant injuries on the job as a result of violent student behaviors.
Here’s what we know about how these methods are used, and how they’re regulated:
What does “seclusion and restraint” mean?
Restraint means to restrict a student’s movement by holding them, by using a device to keep them still (straps, for example), or through medication. Physical restraint can mean anything from holding a child’s arm to pulling their whole body down.
Seclusion means to isolate a student in a room or space that they’re physically prevented from leaving. Seclusion spaces and rooms vary between schools and districts. Some schools have makeshift spaces that operate like time-out corners. Usually, the student is not completely enclosed in those spaces and people can easily see in and out.
Other schools have separate seclusion rooms. Some seclusion rooms in Fairfax County, for example, are built like Russian nesting dolls — rooms within rooms. The innermost room is reserved for students with more egregious behavior issues. That room is concrete and about the size of a closet. Inside, there are no chairs to sit on and no windows on the walls. The doors have small windows and large magnetic locks.
How seclusion and restraint are regulated
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requires that school districts report every time a student is restrained or secluded. And while tens of thousands of cases are reported, many suspect those numbers fall short.
According to an Education Week analysis of data from the 2013-14 school year, nearly 80% of districts reported that they never secluded or restrained special education students. That number includes New York City, the nation’s largest school district.
For years, Fairfax County Public Schools also told the government that it never secluded or restrained students. But the WAMU investigation found hundreds of cases recorded in internal documents and letters that schools sent to parents.
The Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, is conducting an investigation into the quality of the data that school districts are reporting. Jackie Nowicki, a director at the GAO, says media accounts and testimony from lawmakers have raised “concerns that seclusion and restraint [have] continued to be chronically underreported.”
At the state level, regulation varies widely.
A law in Washington state calls for schools to follow up with parents after a student is restrained or secluded, to “address the behavior that precipitated the restraint or isolation and [review] the incident with the staff member who administered the restraint or isolation.”
Other state laws are much less specific. In Virginia, a recently passed measure simply requires that the state Board of Education develop regulations around restraint and seclusion that are consistent with federal guidelines. Some states only govern the use of seclusion and restraint for students with special needs, and many do not have reporting requirements.
What are the alternatives to restraint and seclusion?
Restraint and seclusion can take a toll on students. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Rob Manning told the story of a Vancouver, Wash., student who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after repeated restraints and seclusions.
Students and educators can also be injured, and in a few tragic cases, students have even died. That’s what happened at a school run by Grafton Integrated Health Network, a Virginia-based nonprofit that manages private schools and adult group homes for people with disabilities and behavioral issues.
In December 2004, a 13-year-old student with autism died while being restrained at a Grafton facility. Now, the organization uses a trauma-informed care approach that doesn’t rely on seclusion or restraint.
“The whole idea is when someone is at their worst, we need to be at our best,” says Kim Sanders, who has worked at Grafton for 30 years.
According to Sanders, in 2003, the year before the student died, Grafton served about 220 children and adults but had more than 6,600 incidents of restraint and about 1,500 instances of seclusion.
“Our toolbox was full of restraint and seclusion. That was sort of the go-to technique that we used,” Sanders says.
Now, teachers are coached to empathize with students and think about what someone would need if they were having a bad day.
“Most people would say [they need] space, someone to be kind to me, maybe to read a book … go for a walk,” Sanders says. “No one is going to say, ‘Well actually, I need someone to hold me against my will or lock me in a room by myself.’ That’s not what any of us would want.”
Grafton’s method also requires teachers to learn about students’ patterns of behavior and learning styles to help individualize their approaches to education.
According to Sanders, in the last five years, the organization has greatly reduced its use of seclusion and restraint.
The Education Department has been funding the development of a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. It’s a framework designed to help schools improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities and emotional and behavioral disorders. According to George Sugai, one of PBIS’s senior advisors, the program provides strategies that are designed to reduce the need for restraint and seclusion.
Sugai, who’s an emeritus professor of special education at the University of Connecticut, also says it’s important to note that seclusion and restraint shouldn’t be used as the sole intervention for students with challenging behavior. Instead, he encourages teachers to seek more therapeutic responses to students, such as having conversations about why they behaved in certain ways.
Sugai explains this with an example: “When I work with a school and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh [a student] has been in the office 17 times and we have had to restrain [the student] 14 times,’ I say, ‘Well, what interventions do you have in place,’ ” to help them understand their anger?
Sugai says many schools don’t have alternatives in place to prevent behaviors that result in the use of seclusion and restraint, and many lack alternative interventions. This is something his organization is hoping to change.