- In an effort to protect students with disabilities, a new U.S. Department of Education initiative announced Thursday by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will review schools' potentially inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion, according to a news release.
- The department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) will team up to carry out the initiative's three parts: conducting compliance reviews, which will ensure schools are adequately serving students with disabilities — and correct practices if they're not; collecting data; and providing technical support to schools in creating and implementing effective and appropriate policies.
- The announcement comes nearly two months after Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, that aims to prevent and reduce restraint and seclusion — which disproportionately affects students with disabilities — in schools.
The Education Commission of the States broadly refers to restraint as "the physical holding or mechanical restriction of a student's movement" and seclusion as "procedures that isolate a student from others." When it comes to students with disabilities who are misbehaving or acting out, these kinds of tactics are often used as a way to resolve a problematic situation, but in many cases, they are used inappropriately and can cause more problems than they intend to solve.
In November, a 13-year-old student on the autism spectrum was restrained by staff at his school in El Dorado Hills, California, after he allegedly became violent. While physically restrained, he became unresponsive, and he died the next day. This outcome is more extreme than most, but the practice that helped cause it is not uncommon.
Parents and former staff at the school where the boy died said several students were restrained and that this happened often. And across the nation, more than 100,000 students — almost 69,000 of whom have disabilities — were restrained or secluded during the 2013-14 school year.
On a policy level, federal laws guiding the use of these practices on students with disabilities seems to be lacking, and at a state level, rules and regulations are inconsistent. The Education Department issued a "Dear Colleague" letter in 2016 with guidance on how restraint and seclusion in schools can spur discrimination against students with disabilities, as well as other ways educators and staff can approach discipline. But as a whole, more work remains to be done in further developing and enforcing measures that prevent this disparity.
Improper use of restraint and seclusion inhibits a child's learning and can put them at risk of harm. By mandating training in trauma-informed teaching and in effective alternatives — including positive behavioral interventions — among educators and other school staff, administrators can help ensure that their schools' methods are kept in compliance with any current or eventual policy, and, more importantly, that no child's safety is ever threatened at school.
School leaders can also make use of online resources, such as those issued by the Education Department, for further guidance on how to address this issue.