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February 14, 2013

Legislation would reduce use of restraints, isolation rooms in schools

INDIANAPOLIS — Advocates for children with special needs are backing legislation aimed at reducing the use of physical restraints and locked isolation rooms to discipline students.

The bill, authored by Republican state Sen. Randy Head of Logansport, would require all schools in Indiana to develop seclusion and restraint policies that meet certain standards and to train staff in their appropriate use.

Senate Bill 345 would also require schools to document and report to both parents and the state when those techniques are used.

The push for the legislation started last year, after the U.S. Department of Education released a study that found tens of thousands of students across the U.S. — most of them disabled — had been strapped down, physically restrained, or locked into isolation rooms by teachers or school staff to keep order in their classrooms. In some cases, the techniques led to injury and death.

Head wants the legislation to apply to all schools – public, charter and private – but some private and charter schools are lobbying to be excluded. His bill was scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday but was postponed.

“No one should be able to put a kid in a sleeper hold or lock him in a closet, no matter where parents decide to place their kids,” Head said.

Though the legislation would cover all students — not just those with physical, mental or emotional disabilities — it has its strongest backing from organizations that advocate for children with special needs.

The U.S. Department of Education study released last year found that about 70 percent of the nearly 40,000 students who were restrained or isolated in seclusion rooms during the 2009-10 school year had learning, behavioral, physical or developmental needs. The study also found that African-American and Hispanic students were also disproportionately isolated or restrained.

Kim Dodson, assistant executive director of The Arc of Indiana, said Indiana has laws that cover the use of physical restraints and isolation rooms in state prisons, juvenile facilities, and nursing homes. But no law that sets the standards for when they can be used in school.

“Schools should be required to have a policy where every child, disabled or not, has the right to education and is treated with dignity and respect and a healthy and safe environment in which to learn,” Dodson said.

Dodson said the need for such legislation was made evident by an incident that occurred last week, when an 8-year-old child with Down Syndrome was sent from an Indianapolis area school with her shoes and socks duct-taped tightly to her ankles to prevent her from removing them. The child’s parents said the tape was wrapped so tightly that the child couldn’t walk and was placed in a wheelchair by school staff when she was sent home on a school bus.

Head’s bill would allow schools to develop their own policies as long as they meet certain standards spelled out in the legislation. Those standards include a requirement that school personnel be trained in the appropriate use of restraints and isolation rooms, and that those techniques be used as a last resort to keep a student from harming himself or others.

Currently, the Indiana Department of Education encourages local school corporations to develop their own policies on the use of restraints and isolation techniques. But there is no requirement to do so, leaving the state with a patchwork of policies and practices.

“It’s hard to write a law that plans for every circumstance and every teacher is going to tell you that things are unpredictable so we want each school corporation to come up with policies that will work,” said Head. “But we want those policies made public, we want parents to understand how they will be used, and we want to make sure they’re not going to harmful to a child.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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