Juvenile Justice

Published — May 16, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Education Department issues guidelines for restraining, isolating disruptive students

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking Jan. 31, 2011, at Morehouse College in Atlanta. John Bazemore/AP

‘Common sense’ rules follow release of troubling statistics, debate over standards


In response to simmering concerns over reported abuses, the U.S. Department of Education issued multiple guidelines Tuesday for how schools can avoid going overboard in restraining or isolating disruptive students.

“As education leaders, our first responsibility must be to make sure that schools foster learning in a safe environment for all of our children and teachers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement accompanying the release of “Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document.”

“I believe this document is an important step toward this goal. I also want to salute leaders in Congress for their vigilance on this issue,” Duncan said.

Duncan said 15 principles described in the document “come down to common sense.” He called on districts and schools to consider incorporating them into written policies that make standards clear to staff and parents.

The department’s guidelines state that restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment, and should never be used at all unless a child’s behavior poses behavior poses “imminent danger” of serious physical harm to the child or others. The principles also warn that such policies should apply to all students, not just disabled children, and that parents and staff should be informed of policies. In addition, parents should be immediately told when a child has been subject to restraint or seclusion.

Congress has wrestled over whether to adopt national standards for secluding students in rooms alone, or restraining students, which can be defined as staff holding down children or restraining them with straps or other devices.

Although the House of Representatives passed a bill with national standards in 2010, the Senate failed to consider legislation on the floor. A similar 2011 measure went nowhere. Divisions among disabled rights groups and arguments over whether states should be left to set standards led to a stalemate.

At least 13 states do not have standards or regulations, according to detailed charts included in the Department of Education’s document. .

Ordered by Congress to investigate allegations of abuse, the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2009 found “hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades.”

“Examples of these cases,” the GAO said, “include a 7-year-old purportedly dying after being held face down for hours by school staff, 5-year-olds allegedly being tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teacher and suffering broken arms and bloody noses, and a 13-year- old reportedly hanging himself in a seclusion room after prolonged confinement.”

Teachers and staff were often found to be untrained in restraint or seclusion methods, and some who committed abuses continued to be employed in the field of education later, the GAO investigation also found.

After the 2010 stalemate in Congress, a Washington, D.C.-based group called TASH, which promotes equal treatment for the disabled, issued its own roundup of news reports of alleged abuses in a report called “The Cost of Waiting.”

In March of this year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released analysis of the first-ever detailed collection of schools’ reports of students being restrained or put into isolated rooms. The data required by the department was included in its 2009-2010 Civil Rights Data Collection.

After analyzing it, the civil rights office found that students with disabilities were only 12 percent of the sample but nearly 70 percent of kids restrained by adults at school. Black students were 21 percent of students identified as disabled under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but they were 44 percent of disabled students who were restrained.

Data also showed that Hispanic students who were not disabled were subject disproportionately to isolation. While comprising 24 percent of students without disabilities, Hispanics were 42 percent, of those subjected to seclusion.

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