Researchers from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire have found that restraint and seclusion practices are more likely to be used on disabled students than their nondisabled counterparts, and that these practices are far more likely to occur in affluent school districts. The finding that restraint and seclusion are more common among disabled students is not new — the Department of Education and Department of Justice noted that “…students with disabilities (under the IDEA and Section 504 statutes) represent 14% of students, but nearly 76% of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools” in a policy brief on discriminatory discipline practices.
“On average across school districts nationwide, there were 2.6 instances of restraint for every 100 students with a disability for the 2009-2010 school year, compared with only 0.1 instances for every 100 students without a disability, the researchers found. Seclusion rates followed a similar pattern,” UNH notes in a press release.
Their additional finding about incidences of restraint and seclusion in affluent school districts, though, raises some important questions about the use of these practices in those environments. Are wealthy schools using these discipline methods discriminatorily? Are more students with severe disabilities attending such schools, or being funneled to them? How are educator attitudes affecting the use of restraint and reclusion?
Here’s the good news: almost 60% of schools in the study reported no use of restraint, while 82.5% said they had not secluded any students. The remainder of the schools involved in the study, however, had troublingly high rates of restraint and seclusion. The next finding, however, was intriguing: “average rates of restraint and seclusion are more than twice as high in school districts of low poverty and low diversity.” The researchers are, naturally, curious about why this is.
One possibility is that more students with severe disabilities are ending up in such environments; if a school had more students with significant disabilities, it’s possible staff would find themselves using restraint and seclusion as discipline methods more often. The frequency of some diagnoses is dependent on race and class, as is the frequency of diagnosis, and thus, there may be some natural imbalances to explain the disparities between schools when it comes to the use of restraint and seclusion.
It’s also possible that more students with significant impairments are being routed to these districts. Smaller, underfunded schools with limited resources sometimes transfer disabled students to schools where they can access better services. Since students with more significant impairments can present the most challenges in the classroom, and require the most support, parents, students, and teachers may decide that transferring is in their best interest to get them the educational support they need.
Consequently, some schools may end up more loaded with disabled students than others. This could certainly be one factor in the equation.
Educator and Staff Attitudes
The decision to use restraint and seclusion also depends heavily on social attitudes (as well as, in some cases, state law). Some educators favor these methods, while others feel they are outdated and counterproductive, and that a reward-focused, nurturing environment is more appropriate for disabled students. Often, these techniques are applied to stop a student from behaving disruptively, but they do not get to the root of the behavior, nor do they provide the student with added educational opportunities.
In wealthy districts, where the focus is often on positive student outcomes, high test scores and progression to college, educators may be more focused on not allowing disabled students to disrupt their classes. Consequently, they may feel a push to promote restraint and seclusion for such students, rather than full integration into the classroom as equals, and as a result, overall statistics when it comes to these techniques could be higher in such environments.
The researchers also theorize that “the cultural norms in low-poverty, low-diversity school districts lead practitioners to more readily remove students for challenging behavior [and] restraint and seclusion are more resource-intensive (in terms of staffing and dedicated rooms) and thus more likely to be used in more affluent schools.” In other words, as those who have attended school in wealthy districts know, teachers tend to take a less tolerant approach to disruptive behavior in those environments. Meanwhile, poorer schools lack the funds for disability resources; they don’t have the staff to restrain students legally and safely, or the resources to provide a separate area for seclusion, and thus such students must be accommodated in a classroom environment as they are.
Is it also possible that discrimination is playing a role? The answer to this question is complex, and not so easily determined by pointing at statistics. The researchers themselves note that their findings indicate the need for further research to examine these disparities — to find out why some schools are continuing to use restraint and seclusion at all, and to explore the race and class disparities in the application of these discipline methods. Their findings are almost counterintuitive: one might expect low-income people of color to bear the brunt of more outdated discipline approaches, but in this case, it’s the opposite.
Are educators in wealthy districts less tolerant of disabled students? Do they experience more pressure from nondisabled students and their parents about disabled students in the classroom? Analysis of teacher and peer attitudes about disability could provide fascinating insights into the hows and whys of this phenomenon.
Photo credit: Universiteitskrant Univers.