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Betsy DeVos takes aim at improper restraint of students with disabilities

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a new effort Thursday to discourage schools from improperly restraining or secluding students with disabilities. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

The U.S. Education Department said Thursday that it will work with schools to reduce incidents of improper restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities, tackling a persistent problem.

Data shows that students with disabilities are subjected to these practices far more often than other students. Experts say children should be physically restrained or isolated only when they pose a physical threat to themselves or others.

Thursday’s move represented a rare agency effort to take a more active role in oversight and follows moves rolling back Obama-era rules in other areas. The announcement garnered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos unusual praise from liberal advocates.

“This approach is extremely significant and if done properly will be an incredible benefit,” said Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group.

Thousands of schoolchildren, most with disabilities, are involuntarily confined in schools each year. In the 2015-2016 school year, more than 36,000 students nationally were subjected to seclusion, federal data shows. Nearly 86,000 more were restricted from moving freely by a school worker holding the child or by being immobilized by handcuffs or other restraints.

The figures are reported by schools, and experts say they understate incidents. The Education Department said it would work to improve data reporting.

A photo emerges and a Va. school system’s use of seclusion comes under scrutiny

The department also said it will conduct compliance reviews of school systems that may be inappropriately restraining or secluding students and will offer guidance on obligations under federal civil rights law.

One key question is what triggers compliance reviews, said Lewis Bossing, senior staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. He said he was encouraged that the department was looking at the problem systemically, given its rollback of other systemic civil rights investigations. “It is welcome news if this actually results in findings where there are violations of the law with regard to the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint,” he said.

Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said the agency will do more than 70 reviews a year, including data-quality examinations and compliance reviews.

The Obama administration had also addressed this matter, issuing resource materials to discourage inappropriate restraint and publishing guidance explaining when such incidents might be considered civil rights violations.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, has said seclusion and restraint are sometimes necessary and opposed suggestions that federal authorities prohibit the practices. But the group did not seem concerned about Thursday’s announcement, saying the technical assistance is welcome. “No child or educator should be harmed when seclusion and restraint is used,” said Dan Domenech, the group’s executive director. “It should be an option of last resort that ensures children and educators are safe.”