Widespread use of restraint and seclusion in the nation’s schools is putting kids with disabilities at risk and current laws offer families little recourse, a U.S. Senate investigation finds.
A 54-page report from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unveiled Wednesday documents 10 cases where students have experienced restraint or seclusion at school. Among them are the story of a 12-year-old Florida boy with developmental disabilities who was restrained 89 times in 14 months without his parents’ knowledge and the case of a 14-year-old in Georgia who committed suicide after being repeatedly secluded at school.
The findings were issued as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced plans to introduce federal legislation to limit the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, practices which data suggest are most frequently used on students with disabilities.
Currently, Harkin said that there are laws to protect individuals in jails and hospitals but there are no nationwide standards for schools.
“This report shows in stark detail that families whose children are being subjected to dangerous seclusion and restraint practices have little or no recourse through school procedures or through the courts,” said Harkin, who likened seclusion rooms at schools to cells he saw at Guantanamo Bay which he said are reserved for “the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”
“These practices provide no educational benefit, yet unsupervised seclusion and physical restraints are being used thousands of time each year against our nation’s school children,” the senator said.
Harkin’s bill — which is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. — would prohibit children from being secluded in locked, unattended rooms and bar the use of medication or other chemical restraints as well as mechanical restraints like belts or duct tape. Under the proposal, physical restraint could only be used in emergency situations.
The measure is an attempt to remedy numerous issues uncovered in the committee report. Investigators found that families were frequently not told about the use of restraint or seclusion on their child and struggled to obtain information from schools regarding exactly what methods were used and for how long.
Even in cases where children were harmed, the report indicates that families had few options. What’s more, investigators said that parents often struggle to overcome a presumption that schools have acted appropriately.
Harkin’s bill would alter the law so that families could take more timely legal action and the measure would require schools to notify parents if restraint is used. Under the legislation, states would also be required to collect and disseminate data on use of restraint and seclusion and establish policies and procedures to prevent emergency situations from arising.
The bill introduced by Harkin on Wednesday is similar to one proposed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. So far, Miller’s proposal has failed to generate traction in the Republican-controlled House and a spokeswoman for the body’s Committee on Education and the Workforce said there are no plans currently to consider it.
Harkin said his bill is backed by more than 200 advocacy groups across the country including Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy, The Arc, Autism Speaks and the National Down Syndrome Society.
However, the effort faces opposition from school leaders. In a joint statement, officials with the National School Boards Association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, called Harkin’s bill a “federal overreach” and said that restraint and seclusion are only used as a last resort.