New school physical restraint law concerns SAD 44 consultant
An updated – and stricter - state rule governing the methods school staff may use to physically restrain students who may pose a risk to themselves or others will go into effect July 1.
SAD 44’s special education consultant, Marcye Gray, worries that the new restrictions could result in scenarios in which classrooms might routinely be cleared of all other students, rather than run the risk of restraining the youngster causing the problem.
“I’m concerned about the impact it could have on all children. If they’re being evacuated, they’re not receiving their education,” said Gray.
The updated rule, known as Chapter 33, was developed in recent months by a special task force, following complaints from some parents of special-education students in other school systems in Maine.
The complaints were initially filed regarding the safety of “prone” restraint, an extreme case of physical restraint in which a student may be placed face down on the floor and held by the arms and legs. The position has the potential to restrict a student’s airway.
Another concern was the use of “seclusion,” in which a student may be isolated in a separate room for a time.
The new rule clarifies definitions and applications of physical restraint and seclusion.
Gray said the seclusion change, which specifies that a child be monitored while isolated, will have little effect here because SAD 44 has monitored such students all along.
“Seclusion is used to allow a child to self-calm,” she said.
She said SAD 44 does not use the prone restraint technique. But a narrower definition of allowable physical restraint, coupled with an increase in the number of students to whom it will apply, could have a significant effect here, said Gray.
“The old rule was part of special ed regulations and applied only to identified students," she said. "The new law is part of general education law and therefore, applies to all students."
The rule stipulates that physical restraint may be used "only as an emergency intervention when the behavior of a student presents imminent risk of injury or harm to the student or others, and only after other less intrusive interventions have failed or been deemed inappropriate."
The new requirement, Gray said, "does not allow a student to be physically moved unwillingly. Now we have a very restrictive law that also applies to every student. That means teachers trying to break up a fight need to keep this law in mind."
And, she said, "if a child is out of control, the directive is to evacuate the classroom. We have occasionally evacuated, but not as a standing practice."
She also said removing all the other students from the room could send the wrong message, by giving the unruly student the power to affect the whole class. "I don't think this does our children any favors. This worries me a lot."
Types of restraint, training
Gray said the rule change was intended largely to address prone restraint. But, she said, "we wouldn't use [that technique]," noting the only time in her 36-year career as a special education director that she recalled such as incident happened "when a student was running out into traffic, and the staff member grabbed her by her legs and pulled her down."
She said SAD 44 uses a technique in which staff members put their arms around the child, in some cases seated on the floor, sometimes seated in a chair with arms. "Anyone who knows children knows sometimes you have to hold them a while before it becomes comforting," she said.
She said when such measures are taken in the special-education program, she receives reports on the incidents. "There aren't very many," she said.
Gray said staff are trained in a three-day "Safety Care" program, where the focus is on “talking kids down” and helping them regulate themselves. "Physical restraint doesn't come into the picture in the training until the last two hours," she said.
Gray said because the new rule stipulates that a school must now have an “adequate number of trained staff accessible” throughout the building, she anticipates the number of staff needing training for the upcoming school year will approximately double.
In the past the district has primarily trained special-education staff. Adding more people could be expensive, she said, and there's a concern if it will be possible, given the expected higher demand throughout the state.
(Note: E-mail requests to the Maine Department of Education for comment were not returned by press time.)