CONCORD — A varied group of educators, advocates for the disabled and social service providers have agreed on changes to state laws governing the restraint and isolation of problem, mostly disabled students.
However educators are concerned that new standards for the use of force and reporting requirements may interfere with school operations.
Senate Bill 396 revises state law passed in 2010 limiting the use of child restraint practices in schools and specialized facilities like the Youth Detention Center and Crotched Mountain School. The law regulates the use of seclusion, restraint and the use of force.
The proposed bill changes the definition of restraint and seclusion and clarifies what has to be reported and parents notified and what does not.
Under the bill the departments of education and health and human services would be required to write rules to carry out the program and the Education Department would investigate incidents of inappropriate use of restraint and isolation.
The bill limits the use of seclusion, which is putting a child in a room by him or herself, to schools and facilities with adequate space and equipment.
Michael Skibbie, Policy Director for the Disabilities Rights Center, said the bill does not prohibit restraint or seclusion, but noted many schools do not use either method.
"There are plenty of tools available to educators that remain in the box," he told the committee, while restraint and seclusion can be used "only for the safety of the child and others."
There is a clear need to beef up the requirement that schools notify parents if restraint or seclusion has been used on their child Skibbie said.
At a public hearing Tuesday, parents of disabled — mostly autistic and non-communicative — public school students testified they were not informed about the use of physical restraints on their children until well after the incident, if at all.
Robert and Judith McSheehan of Rochester said their middle-school age son was restrained 13 times in a month. They decided to revoke the permission they had given to the school, she told the committee.
Often it is easier to go to the strategy of physical restraint, she said.
They are exploring an out-of-district placement to meet their son's needs, McSheehan said.
Jennifer Bertrand of Mont Vernon and a teacher told of her daughter's experience in public school.
"Most school districts don't need to use these restraints," Bertrand said, but those that do come to rely on these practices.
"This is serious stuff, eight to 10 children die every year," she told the committee. "This has a serious impact on kids. I need to know about it as her mother."
But Dean Michener, director of governmental affairs for the NH School Boards Association, said the definition of use of force would apply to almost any touch used to get a child's attention or to move him along.
While the intent of the bill is good, he said, the reporting requirements and definition of use of force are overreach.
"Let's not put difficult restrictions on teachers and staff," Michener said.
Mark Joyce of the NH School Administrators Association agreed with Michener that the use of force standard was overly restrictive and would not allow educators to intervene when imminent danger is expected, only when there is the threat of actual harm.
"This could interfere with the general operation of schools and may work against the good intentions of this bill," Joyce said.
But David Villiotti, executive director of the Nashua Children's Home, said the primary goal is to train staff not only in restraining students but also deescalating situations.
He noted most of the fatalities that occur happen with untrained staff. "Training is the key," Villiotti said. "You play a dangerous game with untrained staff."
Only trained staff would be able to restrain a child in the bill and then only as a last resort.
Under the bill, brief holding or touching to calm, comfort, encourage or guide a child would be allowed as would the temporary holding of a hand, wrist, arm, shoulder or back to induce a child to stand or move to a safe location.
Self defense is allowed as is force to defend another person.
The bill requires each faculty and school to have a written policy and procedures.
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
The Senate must act on the bill by the end of the month.