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Annie Waldman: DC Moves to Limit Schools Pinning Down and Isolating Kids

It’s the latest in a national trend to reduce restraints of school kids.

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Image from Flickr user PeterPanFan.

By Annie Waldman
By arrangement with ProPublica.

A bill that would limit Washington public schools restraining or isolating students is working its way through the state Legislature, making it at least the fourth state to move to limit restraints in recent months.

Last year, an analysis of government data by ProPublica and NPR revealed that educators frequently pin down kids and isolate them. During the 2012 school year, these practices were used on students more than 267,000 times. Nearly three-quarters of the reported restraints involved children with disabilities. Hundreds of children are injured each year during restraints and at least twenty have died as a result.

“Many of these children have a fear of isolation and restraint and I don’t think they’re going to want to go back to school.”

Washington’s House of Representatives passed the restraints bill earlier this month and the state Senate is expected to vote on it in the coming weeks. It would prohibit pinning down kids or isolating them unless a student’s actions could lead to the harm of a person or property. Such interventions would also no longer be allowed in the pre-approved behavior plans of special needs students.

State Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, who supports the bill, said she hopes it will decrease the dropout rate, in particular for students with special needs.

“Some districts use handcuffs and some use scream rooms,” McAuliffe told ProPublica. “Many of these children have a fear of isolation and restraint and I don’t think they’re going to want to go back to school.”

Washington children were restrained or isolated more than 10,500 times during the 2012 school year.

Several other states have also moved to decrease schools’ reliance on restraints and seclusion.

Virginia legislators passed a bill earlier this year requiring state leaders to set limits on the use of these practices in schools. In Massachusetts, new rules will be enacted by the end of 2016 requiring educators to get permission from principals before giving students “time-outs” that last more than 30 minutes. New York City, which in the past has faced criticism for its lack of transparency on restraining kids in schools, recently reformed its discipline code to mandate the tracking of such interventions.

According to federal data, Washington children were restrained or isolated more than 10,500 times during the 2012 school year. Although the reporting of restraints is required under state law, exactly how and when the techniques could be used was not clearly defined in the statute.

The new bill clarifies that restraints should only be used as a last resort.

“Districts were using this as a form of punishment,” Arzu Forough, the founder of Washington Autism Alliance and Advocacy, said in an interview. “It was intended to be an emergency response.”

The new bill clarifies that restraints should only be used as a last resort.

Not all legislators support the proposed reforms.

“Let’s be honest, some of these children are very large and very strong,” State Representative Brad Klippert told Tacoma’s News Tribune. “I do want to be able to give our teachers the latitude to protect everyone.”

Annie Waldman is a senior reporting fellow. She recently graduated with honors from the dual masters program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and the School of Journalism.

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