A Wisconsin mother, Mandy Rennhack, says that staff in the Waupun Area School District put her son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, in a 5 by 7 foot plywood box on March 27, after he did not respond to questions regarding his homework and began to pace. At that point, Rennhack says her son was “given the option” of standing in a corner or taking a “time out.” When he did neither of these, he was placed in the box for 80 minutes (though Rennhack was first told he was placed there for 3 hours).
The school district counters that the box is a “quiet room,” with mats on the walls and a window on the door. Don Childs, superintendent of the Waupun Area School District, claims that Rennhack’s son was “agitated” and was told by the teacher to go to the quiet room. The child was told to come out when a “few minutes” but did not, says Childs.
This incident makes it all too clear why we need federal policies about the use of restraints and seclusion, for students with disabilities and, indeed, for all students. Had Rennhack been informed that her son would be placed in a seclusion area in advance? Had she and her son’s school staff discussed when such a procedure would be used — only in crisis or emergency situations — and how it would be carried out? Also, the incident does not seem to have been sufficiently and accurately documented, based on the different accounts of Rennhack and Childs.
Department of Education Issues Nonbinding Guidelines
In 2010, Representative George Miller (D-California) introduced federal legislation, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, about the use of restraints and seclusion. The legislation has yet to be passed, but, on Tuesday, the Education Department made a significant step in addressing these concerns by issuing its own nonbinding guidance in a 40-page document about the use of restraints and seclusion in schools.
As Nirvi Shah writes on Ed Week’s On Special Education blog, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan actually asked states to review their policies and guidelines about restraints and seclusion three years ago. A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the inappropriate and incorrect use of these has led not only to injuries among students but even death.
Shah highlights some of the Department of Education’s 15 principles:
•Preventing the need for restraining or isolating students should be a priority.
•Mechanical restraints should never be used to restrict a student’s movement.
•Schools shouldn’t use drugs or medication to control a student’s behavior unless a doctor or other professional has prescribed these.
•Students should not be restrained EXCEPT when they are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or someone else.
•Isolating or restraining students should never be used as a form of punishment or discipline, coercion, retaliation, or as a convenience.
•Restraining or seclusion of a child should not involve restricting his or her breathing or anything else that harms the student.
•Multiple uses of restraint or seclusion of the same student should trigger a review and even a revision of the protocols under which these are being used.
•Teachers and other staff should receive routine training about using alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports.
While there is much to applaud about the Department of Education’s policies, until they are binding, they have no real teeth.
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