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Practice of restraining special needs students remains controversial, debated


When school officials talk about the need to restrain a child for safety reasons, people don’t envision an early elementary-school-age child, severely disabled and unable to speak, locked in a room or tied to a chair.

Yet, 7 years old is the average age of New Hampshire children being restrained or locked away by themselves in a small room in private and public schools, according to Michael Skibbie, policy director of the Disability Rights Center in Concord.

And it is the special needs child — the one who is autistic or tagged “emotionally or intellectually disturbed” — who is subjected to the practices at 25 times the rate of a nondisabled child.

Those numbers are based on a 2009-10 report from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights.

Examples documented

The New Hampshire Union Leader, in reviewing police investigative files of two Manchester teachers accused of abusing special needs students, talking with parents and listening to a tape of a state Senate hearing on legislation, found that:

• A 40-pound disabled girl, who cannot talk and wears a back brace because of a devastating disease, was repeatedly secluded in the “cozy corner,” a Plexiglas box inside a self-contained Manchester classroom at the Jewett Street School, her shirt pulled up over the back of a chair to ensure she couldn’t get out. The clear cubicle is no longer used, according to Assistant School Superintendent Karen Burkush.

• Another child, also noncommunicative but known to kick, bite and throw things, in that same Manchester classroom was strapped into a wooden chair from the time he came off the school bus until he left at the end of the day, except for bathroom breaks. Sometimes, if he kicked out, his legs were strapped down as well. This was a regular occurrence.

• Another nonverbal child was tied in a rocking chair for about half the time he was in his self-contained classroom at the Henry J. McLaughlin School.

• Another boy, who is autistic and cannot speak, and who was in a public school in Rindge, was routinely locked in a small room when he got upset while the teachers stood outside watching him.

State legislators know about the issue.

Sickens parent

“This breaks my heart and makes me sick because had the teachers not told me about them installing the lock on the door and locking him in there (after the fact), he would never been able to tell me,” the mother wrote legislators.

“I feel betrayed, knowing it appears the best way of handling (name deleted) in their opinion was locking him up. The harm done by this is almost irreparable.”

• At Rochester Middle School, an 11-year-old boy was restrained 13 times in less than a month after his parents signed a “safety of others” restraint permission form that school officials told them was needed, his parents wrote the legislators. They rescinded their permission after learning the restraints were used for noncompliance situations — discipline — and not for safety reasons.

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, students with disabilities represent 12 percent of the student population but account for 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75 percent of those physically restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely.

“It is quite pervasive,” Skibbie said of schools using the control measures. “I think it’s pretty widespread.”

And it can be dangerous, he said.

Not common practice

Allen Pardy of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators believes a small proportion of children are restrained and that the practice of using restraints and seclusion is not widespread.

Pardy said the enactment of RSA: 126U last September regarding restraints and seclusion has “really changed the game.”

A legislative committee, which also includes representatives state Health and Human Services Department (DHHS), is working on the rule-making process.

“It’s very complicated because the DHHS is involved and they have their own rules and interpretations,” Pardy said.

Legal requirement

The law requires educators to file reports whenever a child is restrained or secluded, and limits restraint uses to emergency situations.

At least 20 children died nationwide from being restrained, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Skibbie said that hasn’t happened in New Hampshire, but there have been about a half dozen incidents of children suffering broken bones.

There is no federal law about restraining or secluding school children, and laws differ from state to state.

Restraints can be when a teacher hugs a child or holds the child in a way to prevent movement until an out-of-control situation de-escalates. At times, it can mean strapping a child into a chair.

Skibbie said in one unintentional case, an administrator pulled a child by the arm and caused a serious shoulder injury.

Incidents decline

DRC Executive Director Richard Cohen said that, for the past three calendar years, the center has received 27 intakes about the use of restraints or seclusion across 12 schools, facilities or programs. That is a downward trend since 2010 when a law concerning the use of restraints in schools was enacted, he said.

That law did not address the issue of seclusion, but the recently enacted law does, and while it doesn’t ban the controversial practice, it limits its use to emergencies.

“It’s happening every day all over the country,” said Dan Habib, filmmaker at the Institute on Disabilities (IOD) at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Habib made a film called “Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories” that recounts experiences of former students who were restrained and secluded while in public schools across the country and the physical and emotional injuries they suffered as a result.

“The reason I made that film was to show just how devastating it is,” said Habib, who won an Emmy in 2010 for his film “Including Samuel.”

“It was to show that anything you can do to avoid the use of restraints or seclusion is the best path.”

Opposed changes

The New Hampshire School Boards Association (NHSBA), as well as the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, both opposed changes to the legislation.

Barrett Christina, NHSBA staff attorney, said members’ concern was that the law was confusing for school district staff to understand and implement.

The definition of restraints, he said, was so overbroad that any time a staff member needed to touch a child, for instance, leading him to the principal’s office, would be conceived as restraints. Skibbie said the law makes it clear that is not the case and that educators can restrain students when they or somebody else is at risk.

What the law now requires, however, is a written report about the incident and notification the same day to a parent or guardian about what happened.

Joanne Malloy, also of the Institute on Disabilities, is a national expert in the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, an approach that doesn’t use restraints and seclusion.

It involves individual plans for challenging students — those that can be out of control, aggressive, disruptive — using a positive strategy and giving the student positive feedback.

Science, she said, has proven the technique works.

“It’s a complex issue,” she said. “Schools don’t necessarily have the staff with the expertise in teaching children with aggressive and unsafe behavior.” Concluding part Tuesday pgrossmith@unionleader.com


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