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Report Prompts Call for Rules on Restraining Students

By Maria Glod and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Citing "disturbing" reports of schoolchildren being harmed when teachers physically restrained them, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on state school chiefs yesterday to develop plans this summer to ensure that restraints are used safely and sparingly.

Virginia and Maryland have policies that call on teachers to use other means to calm students and to turn to physical restraint only when a student is in danger of hurting himself or others. D.C. law provides no guidance on the issue for public schools but restricts public money from going to private schools if they restrain students in ways that are physically dangerous.

Duncan's announcement came a day after federal investigators had revealed word of hundreds of allegations that youngsters had been improperly held, bound or isolated in schools over the past two decades. Investigators with the Government Accountability Office highlighted a 2002 case in Texas that involved a teacher who now works in Loudoun County. Teacher Dawn Marie Hamilton lay on a 14-year-old boy who refused to stay in his seat, and the boy died, according to the report.

Hamilton, a special education teacher at Park View High School in Sterling, was hired in Virginia by officials who had no knowledge of the incident, which did not turn up in background checks. Hamilton was not criminally charged but was listed on a Texas registry of people found to have abused or neglected children.

Hamilton has been placed on administrative leave with pay. She did not respond to an e-mail or a phone message left at her home yesterday.

No federal law restricts the use of restraints or seclusion in schools, and the states have a patchwork of regulations, the GAO report found. Investigators also noted an absence of a central government effort to track the use of restraints in schools or allegations of abuse.

Duncan, who spoke during a congressional hearing on President Obama's education plan, cited as a model an Illinois policy that prohibits the use of restraints as a punishment, requires documentation of each incident and includes considerable training for teachers.

"I'm going to be working with state school chiefs as we go into the next school year to make sure that across the country we are thoughtful and we are not doing anything that endangers children," he said.

The use of restraints in schools presents a delicate balance for educators who are teaching a growing number of special-needs children who might have behavioral problems. In general, restraints and seclusion are used only in cases in which children might harm themselves, classmates or staff members.

Mary Kealy, an assistant superintendent for pupil services in Loudoun schools, had been scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday to discuss the GAO report but dropped out after Hamilton's connection came to light.

In written testimony, Kealy said that all Loudoun special education teachers are required to have basic training in defusing conflicts and that physical restraint training is done only for teachers who work with students with autism, emotional disabilities and severe cognitive challenges. Training is available but not required for general education teachers, she said.

"The appropriate use of physical restraint may be a tool, under certain circumstances, used as a last resort for students who exhibit out of control or dangerous behavior and may injure themselves or others," Kealy said.

Hamilton was working in a Texas middle school in 2002 when 14-year-old Cedric Napoleon stopped doing his work and teachers delayed his lunch as punishment, according to the GAO report. The boy tried to steal candy and refused to stay in his chair. Hamilton held the boy in his chair, investigators found. He struggled, and she put him on the floor and lay atop him as he kicked and cursed. According to state documents, the boy suffocated.

Since the 2002 incident, a Loudoun schools official said, Hamilton has worked at another public school in Texas, at a private academy in Springfield and at Rock Creek Academy, a private special education school in the District.

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