Legislative changes and increased training of school staff could help to reduce the incidence of children being restrained and secluded in schools, a panel of state officials said Friday at a forum hosted by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
The roundtable discussion was organized in response to a February report by the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) that raised “significant concern” about the frequency with which young children with autism and other disabilities are restrained or secluded in Connecticut schools.
In each of the last three years, the state Department of Education has reported about 30,000 incidents of restraints or seclusion, with autistic students the most frequently subjected to the practices. More than 1,300 children have been injured while restrained or isolated. Research has shown that the techniques can be traumatizing to children, with no evidence that they have therapeutic value, the OCA report says.
On Friday, leaders of the legislature’s Committee on Children reported that a bill was being finalized that includes several provisions aimed at reducing restraints and seclusion, among them: allowing the use of seclusion only in emergencies, not as a regular part of a child’s educational plan; barring prone restraint; limiting instances of restraint and seclusion to 15 minutes, unless an administrator approves an extension; and requiring school staff to meet in any cases where a child is restrained or isolated four or more times within 20 school days.
Murphy told the group that while some students may need to be removed from a classroom for disruptive behavior, he is opposed to secluding children in locked or isolated settings.
“There are appropriate interventions to remove a child from a space and give them time to calm down,” he said, adding, “That’s very different than locking a child up.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed an amendment introduced by Murphy that would require states to establish policies to prevent the unnecessary use of seclusion and restraint for disciplinary purposes in schools. The amendment will be included in the revised 2015 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Murphy said.
Connecticut state law now allows for the use of restraints and seclusion in emergencies that pose imminent danger to a student or others. But it also allows for special education students to be placed in seclusion if their individualized education programs (IEP) provide for such placement — a provision that some child advocates say is overly broad.
State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzel said her department, working with the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, had increased training to school staff on positive behavioral interventions and supports — an alternative to restraints and seclusion. She said that while data collected by the department on incidents of seclusions and restraints was “really troubling,” the discomfort it stirs “will create movement in this area.”
Murphy and Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said the use of restraints and seclusion is a symptom of a larger problem: that schools are not properly resourced to deal with students with complex behavioral problems and communication deficits.
“We hear a pushback that some kids need to be restrained and secluded, and usually, these are children with disabilities,” Eagan said. She said giving school staff adequate training in alternatives to manage autism and other developmental disorders is critical to changing that way of thinking.