When students lose control in the classroom, teachers and administrators sometimes resort to physical restraint or place children in a room alone – a practice that’s now under increased scrutiny.
National reports have shown that it’s leading to injury – and even death – if used in the wrong way.
State education officials hosted a public hearing Tuesday on a proposed regulation of restraint and seclusion in Kentucky’s public schools, specifying how and when educators may use the techniques.
Many who spoke were educators – school district superintendents, principals and special education administrators. They said they worry staff and other students could be injured if the state limits their ability to restrain out-of-control children.
But parents and grandparents in attendance said their students had suffered injuries or psychological trauma in public schools when they were held down or put in an empty supply closet used as a “time out” room.
Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said the state board has been developing the regulation for about a year.
An increase in reports nationwide about serious injury and even death from the practice spurred them into action, she said, along with an incident in Kentucky last December, when a Mercer County mother said she found her autistic son in a duffel bag at school.
The U.S. Department of Education also weighed in on the issue in 2009, urging states to review their policies on the issue.
“It all came together at once,” Gross said. “The board’s focus is on student safety and ensuring that students aren’t harmed by discipline or restraint.”
Lucy Heskins, a staff attorney for Protection and Advocacy, an independent state agency for Kentuckians with disabilities, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing.
She pointed to a national report that detailed dozens of injuries and four deaths from improper restraint and seclusion.
“The abuse and misuse of restraint and seclusion is not something that happens somewhere else,” she said, adding that in the last five years, her agency has documented more than 80 allegations statewide.
Injuries included cuts, abrasions, bruises, sprains, broken bones, psychological trauma and miscarriage, she said. Many of the incidents weren’t because students were out-of-control, she said, but because they didn’t follow a teacher’s directions or got off task.
“We have found that in many cases, restraint and seclusion are not isolated incidents for these children, but that they are often restrained multiple times a day,” she said.
“They are secluded for hours at a time, sometimes locked in closets and storage rooms all day, every day.”
Educators say those examples are extreme, and restraint and seclusion is often necessary to break up fights between students or with special needs children.
Statistics on restraint and seclusion in local schools weren’t immediately available.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said educators statewide are in agreement with parts of the proposed regulation, like more training for educators in alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion.
But they’re concerned about the “unintended consequences,” he said, namely injury to bystanders.
They worry that limitations on restraint could “create more situations where a child could be hurt or cause teachers and administrators to pause in a situation where they need to act right then” to avoid harm, he said.
For example, the proposed regulation says that an adult must monitor the student’s face “for the duration of the physical restraint.” But, Hughes pointed out, what if a child has another child pinned to the ground?
“I’m not a classroom teacher, but I’d bet that you could get together a dozen administrators who have been classroom teachers to recite incidents they have had to deal with in the past,” Hughes said.
“I think the concerns are coming from people who have had to deal with these real-world situations.”
There’s also the concern that teachers won’t be able to remove disruptive students from the classroom, he said.
Franklin County Public Schools Superintendent Chrissy Jones said she worries the proposed regulation, as it’s written now, could put students at risk.
“We’re not in favor of the way it’s written now because we feel like that we could possibly have students or adults injured because it basically says you cant even break up a fight,” she said.
“I’m truly fearful that a child will hurt him or herself, a child or an adult.”
Employees who restrain students go through “extensive training,” she said, including annual updates. They file paperwork whenever restraint is used, and administrators review the incidents, she said.
“It’s not an everyday occurrence,” she said. “Occasionally you do have a child who needs to be restrained because he or she has lost control – it’s a rarity.”
Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Rich Crowe said he’s going to take state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday “at his word” that the regulation won’t tie educators’ hands.
“I’m hoping that it’s more smoke than fire,” he said of the outcry from Kentucky educators.
Crowe said his schools use restraint “quite infrequently,” but more often with students at the alternative school, with young kids or when fights break out.
He said all of the alternative school employees and all of the district’s special education staffers are trained in the appropriate restraint techniques, and there’s a written report every time restraint is used.
He said FIS doesn’t have specific “seclusion rooms,” but kids are sometimes put in time out.
KSBA and other education groups have suggested a number of changes to the wording of the regulation, which gained approval from the Kentucky Board of Education in August.
Gross said Department of Education staff is working to clarify the wording after hearing public comments, and the board will review it again in October.
The legislature gets final say on the regulation. If approved, it could take effect next school year, Gross said.
Gross said state education officials aren’t pursuing any state laws regarding restraint and seclusion. There are currently no laws on the books in Kentucky that address restraint and seclusion specifically, she said.
“We think that we can take care of this through regulatory language,” she said.