US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Harkin Investigation Finds Little to No Recourse for Families of Children Who Were Left in Isolation or Physically Restrained in Schools

Harkin Introduces “Keeping All Students Safe Act,” Legislation That Would Establish Safe School Culture for Students and Teachers, Prohibit the Use of Dangerous Seclusion and Restraints Practices

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—At a news conference in Washington today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, unveiled the findings of an investigation into the use of seclusion and restraints.  Harkin’s investigation found that under current law, a family whose child has been injured, experienced trauma, or died as a result of the use of seclusion or restraints in school has little or no recourse through school procedures or the courts. 

At the event, Harkin announced the introduction of the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a bill to ensure the effective implementation of positive behavioral interventions in our nations’ schools.  The legislation will help schools establish a safe and engaging learning culture for teachers and students alike, and will bar the use of seclusion in locked, unattended rooms or enclosures. The bill also prohibits almost all uses of restraint procedures in schools. A summary of the bill can be seen here.

“This report shows in stark detail that families whose children are being subjected to dangerous seclusion and restraint practices have little or no recourse through school procedures or thorough the courts,” Harkin said. “These practices provide no educational benefit, yet unsupervised seclusion and physical restraints are being used thousands of time each year against our nation’s school children. 

“My goal is to bring about change—to stop the use of seclusion and to severely limit the use of restraints in schools, and to provide teachers and school leaders with the resources to replace these antiquated techniques with learning environments that engage students so incidences of challenging behaviors are decreased and learning in schools is optimized. The Keeping All Students Safe Act, which I am introducing today, will prohibit the use of seclusion and almost all uses of restraint, while ensuring that school personnel have the knowledge and resources available to respond, in a positive, supportive, and safe manner when challenging behaviors do occur.”

Chairman Harkin’s staff undertook an investigation in order to better understand the types of seclusion and restraints occurring in U.S. schools, and the obstacles faced by families seeking to stop the use of these practices or seeking restitution for harm caused by these practices. The investigation examined ten recent cases where children have suffered severe trauma and even loss of life as a result of these practices, and found that only eighteen states currently require parents be notified about the use of seclusion or restraints. In these ten cases across different states, children were significantly injured or had died due to the use of seclusion and restraints in their schools.  For the students profiled in the report, their educational experiences were marred by the use of these practices with no educational benefits, often repeatedly for long periods of time over many instructional days that reduced the students’ learning opportunities.

The report also found certain commonalities across cases and states, including:

  • Families were often not informed of the seclusion and restraints being used with their children.  In fact, when parents are told or discover their children have been subjected to these practices, it often explains why they have seen changes in their child’s temperament, behavior, or learning.
  • Families had difficulty obtaining information or documentation from schools about the frequency, intensity, and duration of the practices.
  • Current laws and regulations often prevent families from successfully recovering on behalf of their children even in cases of clear abuse. The exhaustion requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which require a family to exhaust all of their due process options under the law before taking a case to court, pose a particular challenge to families of children with disabilities.  In light of these requirements, parents are often forced to resort to removing a child from a school as the only means to stop the use of seclusion and/or restraints.
  • Proving psychological harm in the absence of physical damage poses additional challenges in a formal court setting.
  • Parents have difficulty overcoming the presumption that teachers and schools acted appropriately when secluding and restraining children;
  • Even in cases where a family may find relief for their own child, existing laws do not incentivize school districts to change policies and practices.

Harkin was joined at today’s event by the mother of a Minnesota student who was secluded and restrained in her elementary school years, as well as a young man from Massachusetts who was also secluded and restrained as a student.  Dr. Michael George, Director of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Centennial School, also joined Harkin to share how he reduced the use of restraints at the school from more than 1,000 incidents annually to less than five within one year.  He also highlighted the ability of schools to work with children with severe emotional disturbances and significant challenging behaviors without using seclusion or restraints.

The report also makes recommendations for addressing the use of seclusion and restraints in schools, including:

  • Passing legislation that would limit the use of restraints to emergency situations only, when there is an imminent threat of serious physical harm to students themselves or to others, and would discontinue all use of unsupervised and unmonitored seclusion. Annual collecting of data that documents the frequency, duration, and intensity of the use of seclusion and restraints in schools, reported at the local, state, and federal levels with the ability to disaggregate the information at the school level.
  • Training programs to ensure all teachers, administrators, and other school personnel know how to implement preventative programming and positive interventions.
  • Requiring notification of a child’s parents within 24 hours when seclusion or restraints are used against a child.
  • Eliminating the use of seclusion and restraints, which have been shown to have no educational benefit as an educational or therapeutic component of a student’s individualized education plan (IEP).
  • Amending IDEA to allow families to file civil actions to stop the practice of seclusion and/or restraints in court before exhausting remedies available under IDEA.

The full investigation can be seen here.

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