Education Department urges limited use of restraint and seclusion

The U.S. Department of Education released a new resource document May 15, establishing a set of 15 principles schools should follow when establishing restraint and seclusion policies.

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National Disability Rights Network

“These principles stress that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and seclusion and that any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in the report’s introduction.

The document is the most detailed resource ever from the federal government on the controversial practices. It urges educators to eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion methods for disciplinary purposes and to eliminate the practices to circumstances where there is an “imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.”

The document categorically rules out the use of any method of mechanical restraint that restricts a child’s freedom of movement, the use of drugs or medications that have not been proscribed by a medical professional and any method that restricts a “child’s breathing or harms the child.” It also calls for improved parental notification procedures for when these methods are used, detailed plans for when these methods can be exercised for particularly problematic children, and the end of their overwhelmingly disproportionate use on children with disabilities.

Disability advocacy groups have long called for federal guidelines to restrict restraint and seclusion methods. The National Disability Rights Network released a report in March, documenting hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and expressing disappointment with the Department of Education for its lack of “meaningful leadership” on the issue during the Obama Administration, despite Secretary Duncan’s early support for federal legislation and guidance.

The Alliance to Prevent Restraint, Aversive Interventions and Seclusion applauded the Department of Education’s “firm stance” on limiting restraint and seclusion methods. However, in acknowledging that the principles are not legally binding, the advocacy group urged the creation of national standards to reduce, or eliminate, the practices. Federal legislation on the issue remains stalled in Congress.

“It’s a positive sign that the Department of Education has come to see the real dangers of restraint and seclusion, a clear response to APRAIS and the thousands of families and advocates who have pushed to eliminate these practices for years,” said Barb Trader, executive director of TASH, which leads APRAIS, in a statement. “But until prevention becomes enforceable at the federal level and our children are no longer at risk of being improperly restrained or secluded in school, we’ll continue advocating for protections under the law.”

The American Association of School Administrators’ recently endorsed the continued use of restraint and seclusion methods in schools, saying that they are necessary tools to help educators keep schools safe.

In a column recently published in Roll Call, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss) criticized the AASA’s position and called for limits on this “violent, degrading and sometimes deadly practice,” which he also characterized as counterproductive.

“For school administrators, the answer can be found in providing teachers with evidence-based behavior management training to give them the skills they need to avoid dangerous situations and neutralize threatening behavior,” Harper stated. “Rather than encouraging potentially dangerous responses to challenging behaviors, administrators should provide teachers the necessary tools to avoid them.”