A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that data collected by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on the number of school restraint and seclusion incidents is incorrect.
The government watchdog’s findings suggest that during a routine collection of data, which ED conducts every two years, 70% of school districts reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion for the 2015-2016 school year. More than half of the districts in 39 states and the District of Columbia reported zero incidents, and more than 80% of districts across 12 states also reported zero incidents.
These numbers are likely inaccurate, considering that, based on past data trends, at least one instance of restraint or seclusion occurs in a district with a student population of more than 100,000. For example, after an investigation by WAMU, Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia was found to be one of the larger districts reporting zero incidents for years, but it actually had 1,700 incidents in the 2017-18 school year alone.
The report ultimately suggests that the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights:
- provide a reminder and additional clarification to school districts that reporting zero incidents is only acceptable if there are no incidents.
- provide instructions on when to input zeros or leave cells blank.
- follow up with districts already reporting zero incidents as part of the 2017-18 CRDC quality assurance process.
- monitor compliance and ensure action plans are submitted in line with guidance, and that missing data is addressed.
- and "prominently note" for past data collections the issues that may exist with restraint and seclusion numbers due to the inaccuracies.
While restraint or seclusion may be unavoidable for extreme behavioral cases and should serve as a last resort, numbers show that students with disabilities or special needs are disproportionately affected by the practice. Data collected by ED in the 2015-16 school year show that while students with disabilities only represent 12% of all students enrolled, they made up 71% of the students restrained and 66% of the students who were secluded.
In other cases, zero-tolerance discipline policies can also lead to funneling of the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon that predominantly affects students of color and those with disabilities. Many times, seclusion and restraint have also been shown to traumatize and hurt children, causing PTSD.
A report by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates shows that in surveying parents whose children were subject to restraint and seclusion practices, more than 71% of respondents said that there was an absence of a behavioral intervention plan put in place by school personnel. So, instead of relying on positive behavior plans to de-escalate, those involved in the disciplinary action reacted aversively.
With the growing presence of SROs in schools, a trend that will likely continue, it is important for security personnel to be properly trained in social-emotional competencies, or social-emotional learning (SEL), in addition to their regular training.
Many school districts are also reassessing and redefining the roles of school resource officers (SROs) in the school community. In New York City, a new agreement between top city officials and the city’s police department is overhauling the disciplinary approaches adopted by law enforcement in schools so that SROs avoid arresting students for marijuana possession, disorderly conduct and other low-level offenses. In addition, the agreement will curb school staff from calling security for minor infractions like tardiness, uniform violations and smoking.
A greater emphasis on restorative justice, an alternative practice to traditional discipline that focuses on reparation instead of retribution, has also led to a shift in school culture in some schools, improving student-teacher relationships and instilling in both a greater sense of empathy.
One Pennsylvania school that serves students with special education needs requiring behavioral or emotional management even improved outcomes for its students by adopting a neuroscience-based approach. The number of restraint incidents after adopting this new approach, which included building social support and understanding, lessened significantly, according to school administrators, at almost a 70% decrease.
With a greater number of restraint and seclusion incidents than previously documented, it is important for school administrators to take into consideration the ways in which they can create a culture that promotes understanding instead of one that turns school into a prison-like environment.