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Restraining of students questioned

Some wonder whether schools cross the line

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 4, 2009
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Sometimes it is a child with a behavioral problem, flailing her arms, hitting anyone who comes near her. Or it could be a teenager, threatening to physically hurt a classmate. Or a fistfight that breaks out between two feuding junior high boys.

Each day in Massachusetts schools, teachers are faced with the daunting question of whether to cross that barrier and physically restrain any students who are threatening to hurt either themselves or others. Too often, advocates say, teachers are making the wrong decision.

With a surge in the number of students with behavioral issues, and a teacher corps that is on edge because of increasing school violence, the question of whether and how to physically restrain students has become the subject of growing controversy in Massachusetts and will be the subject of a hearing in Congress in coming weeks.

Since 2001, when school districts were required to start reporting the most extreme cases, schools have reported more than 900 cases of restraining students that resulted in injury or lasted for an extended period of time.

Advocates worry that special education students will be especially susceptible to discipline, and question the integrity of a system that relies on self-reporting. They believe many schools do not follow the reporting requirement and accuse the state of not properly monitoring them.

The concerns reflect a national debate over whether school personnel are too quick to restrain students they deem unruly, resulting in physical or psychological injury. Critics say schools have failed to properly train teachers, leaving them ill equipped to handle the growing number of children who physically act out or are in emotional distress. Staffing shortages, because of budget cuts, are also compounding the problem, they say.

In response to those concerns - highlighted in a report this winter by the National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group - the US House Committee on Education and Labor will hold hearings on developing restrictions on when students can be restrained. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is preparing a report.

"This has become an increasing problem in schools, particularly as schools cut back on teachers," said Richard Robison, executive director Federation for Children with Special Needs, an advocacy group based in Boston. "Teachers get frustrated and can't deal with everything. What happens is teachers revert to using restraints illegally or inappropriately."

Under rules adopted by the state education board in 2001, school districts must receive parental permission before restraining students, unless they pose an imminent threat of harming themselves or others. The regulations call for only physically restraining a student, except in cases where a physician has explicitly authorized a chemical or mechanical restraint and a parent approves the use in writing. One popular mechanical device is a Rifton chair, which is designed to help children sit still; it sometimes comes with straps.

The rules also prohibit physically confining a student alone in a room without access to a staff member. Schools only need to report to the state a restraining that results in an injury or lasts for more than 20 minutes. The state is then required to conduct an investigation, which can range from a desk review of the case to a site visit.

When passed, state education officials and other parents expected the regulations would curb the restraint of students because training would include techniques to quell a situation before it gets out of control.

Only in rare cases does the department find that a school acted inappropriately, according to state education officials, who defended their monitoring efforts and regulations for restraining students, including teacher training requirements. "We investigate every report we receive," said Marcia Mittnacht, the state's director for special education who drafted the regulations on restraining students. "I have no evidence that suggest schools are quick to restrain."

North Reading is embroiled in a dispute over the restraining of a 3-year-old autistic boy three years ago. On Feb. 8, 2006, a North Reading elementary school teacher thought he was too disruptive in a preschool classroom. As the boy cried hysterically, she strapped him into a chair designed to help special-needs children sit still and put him into a dark closet-sized room, according to a lawsuit filed this winter by the parents in Middlesex Superior Court. Then she walked away, shutting the door behind her, leaving the boy alone.

The boy's parents did not give permission for the J.T. Hood School to restrain their child, their lawyer said. They do not know how long their child was restrained in a Rifton chair. Another teacher freed him from the closet-sized room, according to the lawyer.

"He's had night terrors," said Sean T. Goguen, a Woburn lawyer representing the family, who asked that their son not be identified. "At the time the incident happened, he couldn't talk and couldn't convey the experience to his parents. . . . It doesn't seem right to me that a 3-year-old boy has to go to a therapist because of someone else's actions."

The state education department ultimately found that the teacher inappropriately restrained the child after the boy's parents - and not the school district - notified the department about the incident, according to an Aug. 22, 2006, letter the state sent to the school superintendent. The teacher never received training on restraining because she had a medically excused absence on the day it took place and should have made up the training before returning to the classroom, according to the letter.

In an interview, the district's superintendent, David Troughton, declined to comment about the case, but did speak in general about the district's philosophy on restraining students and its policy, which was adopted by the School Committee shortly after the passing of the new state regulations.

"Restraints should be used with extreme caution and only in emergencies when other less intrusive actions have been tried," Troughton said. "You don't use a physical restraint as a means of punishment. It should only be used in clear situations where the safety of a child is at stake."

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he believes school administrators and teachers need the authority to restrain students to maintain order in their schools when certain situations escalate, such as a fight or a student who intends to use a weapon or has a violent emotional outburst.

"Sometimes it's a very close call," Koocher said. "If a student is accidentally hurt while being restrained, you can have lots of complaints."