Reece L. Peterson, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska who has testified before Congress on the topic, said there’s a consensus among special educators about using seclusion and restraint only in emergencies when there’s a threat of someone getting hurt.
Based on the department’s new numbers, Peterson said, “there is some evidence that these things are being used on a basis more widely than simply these kind of emergency situations.”
Reports of such incidents should be “minuscule,” said Maureen Fitzgerald, director of disability rights at the Arc, which advocates for people with disabilities. Fitzgerald said when abuses occur it’s usually because workers aren’t properly trained.
“They are put in situations where they’re not trained, they don’t have the support they need and things get out of control because they don’t know how to manage the kids, and they do whatever they can to keep everybody calm and safe . . . and that’s when people start getting hurt,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald’s group is among several disability organizations seeking passage of a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that would prohibit the use of seclusion and allow restraints only in emergency situations and until the danger of serious bodily injury has passed. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has a similar bill in the House. Legislation to address the issue sponsored by Miller passed in 2010 but failed to get out of the Senate.
Activists also say the Education Department should be doing more to highlight and end the practice. In a report this past week, Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, wrote that the department hasn’t provided “meaningful” leadership on the issue and has failed to issue clear guidance on when seclusion and restraint might violate the law.
“The guidance at a minimum must also limit the use of physical restraint or seclusion to circumstances when necessary to protect a child or others from imminent physical danger and not weaken existing protections in the states,” Decker said.
Daren Briscoe, an Education Department spokesman, said the new data will be an “invaluable tool to illuminate trouble spots, highlight best practices and pinpoint areas where teacher and principal training may be appropriate.”