New restraint policy could be a touchy subject
By Lisa Williams Ackley
FRYEBURG — Local school district officials here discussed the implications brought about by a new state law that restricts the use of physical restraint and seclusion of students and how the new rules affect employees — in particular school bus drivers.
It was the occasion of the first reading of School Administrative District 72′s policy on the “Use of Physical Restraint and Seclusion” at the school board’s meeting on June 20, when the policy and its potential legal ramifications first came to light.
“This is major re-write (of a policy currently in place),” Superintendent of Schools Gary MacDonald told the SAD 72 Board of Directors. “In April, the Legislature passed a law to drastically change the use of seclusion” and how physical restraint may be employed, he said.
“The Maine Department of Education has not yet put out their rules, so to speak,” the superintendent said, “but we have been strongly urged by our legal counsel and the Maine School Management Association to get a policy into place quickly.”
Nancy Hall, SAD 72′s Special Services director, who is retiring this month, said at the June 20 school board meeting, “It is a major change brought about by some parent advocacy groups.”
Hall has been attending seminars and workshops regarding the new state law on the use of physical restraint and seclusion, on behalf of SAD 72, MacDonald explained.
“We are having our staff trained in de-escalation techniques,” said Hall.
“For the most part, we can’t restrict students in any way,” Hall stated. “This is for all students in a student environment. It affects the kinds of things we used to do. We need to move a child quickly, if they are in distress, and if they are knocking things down in a classroom, we are not allowed to touch them — you need to document the reasons, any time you put your hands (in a position) to restrict movement or use restraint.”
Specifically, the SAD 72 policy on the “Use of Physical Restraint and Seclusion” states, “The MSAD #72 School Board has adopted this policy and the accompanying procedures to implement the standards for use of physical restraint and seclusion with students, as required by state law and regulations, and to support a safe school environment. Physical restraint and seclusion, as defined by this policy, may only be used as an emergency intervention when the behavior of a student presents an imminent risk of injury or harm to the student or others.”
A policy entitled “Procedures on Physical Restraint and Seclusion” also received a first reading on June 20. SAD 72 policies are formally adopted, upon the second reading.
The revised state law on the use of physical restraint and seclusion of students requires a school district to have an adequate number of staff trained and certified in a training program approved by the Maine Department of Education.
The SAD 72 Procedures policy for physical restraint and seclusion states, “If untrained staff have intervened and initiated a physical restraint in an emergency, trained staff must be summoned to the scene to assume control of the situation if the emergency continues.”
The policy lists permitted uses of physical restraint: “1. 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 less intrusive interventions have failed or been deemed inappropriate. 2. Physical restraint may be used to move a student only if the need for movement outweighs the risks involved in such movement. 3. Prescribed medications, harnesses, and other assistive or protective devices may be used as permitted by (Rule Chapter 33). 4. Parents may be requested to provide assistance at any time.”
Prohibited forms of physical restraint, according to the procedures policy, include:
• punitive purposes; as a therapeutic or educational intervention; for staff convenience; or to control challenging behavior.
• using it solely to prevent property destruction or disruption of the environment in the absence of imminent risk or injury.
• if it restricts free movement of a student’s diaphragm or chest, or that restricts the airway so as to interrupt normal breathing or speech (restraint-related asphyxia).
• anything that relies on pain for control, including but not limited to joint hyperextension, excessive force, unsupported take-downs (e.g. tackles), the use of any physical structure (e.g. wall, railing or post), punching and hitting.”
The policy states that “aversive procedures, mechanical restraints and chemical restraints” are prohibited, as well.
As to monitoring a student in physical restraint, the policy states, “At least two adults must be present at all times when physical restraint is used except when, for safety reasons, waiting for a second adult to arrive is precluded by the particular circumstances,” and “the student must be continuously monitored until he/she no longer presents an imminent risk of injury or harm to him-herself or others.”
Hall said staff must make “important decision on when is it (a situation) a safety issue.”
“This is very, very tight protocol, to make sure restraint is carefully used,” said Hall. “Again, there are very tight restrictions on what we can and can’t do. It’s really not about students in behavioral environments — it’s about all students in a student environment.”
One school board member asked the superintendent, “Is this (policy) taking away tools for us (to use)?”
Supt. MacDonald explained, saying any restraint incidents involving students must be documented in writing.
“We have to have people in all of the schools trained — certified — that’s a cost and that’s a different situation, particularly because you have to have four people trained by (the time school starts in) September,” MacDonald stated. “I understand the intent (of the law), as there have been some situations of abuse — not in this district — but we spoke of it in our recent administrators’ meeting — the difficulty of finding people right now to be trained (as school is out for the summer).”
Hall said two staff members are required during a situation where physical restraint is used that includes “one with eyes on and documenting.”
“Parents are always contacted,” Hall said.
SAD 72 Director John Carter, of Lovell, said he views the policy on physical restraint and seclusion with “total negativity.”
Cater said that after reading the policy and the procedure to be used, he believes “the only safe thing for a school employee to do is call the police” who are not subject to the regulations of the policy.
“I’m concerned,” Carter said. “Most people ask, ‘What can I do?’ I think we should focus on some sort of protocol to follow, so we don’t leave someone (like a school district employee) hanging out there.”
“It has been strongly recommended by our legal counsel that the policy not be changed in any way,” the superintendent told Carter.
“I’m not suggesting we change this,” Carter replied.
Hall gave an example of what constitutes physical restraint of a student and what doesn’t.
“A hands-on restriction of bodily movement has to be to prevent that child from injuring himself or someone else,” said Hall. “If you grab the student’s hand — that’s not restraint. Yet, if you’re holding their hand and they begin to resist — that’s restraint. You do have the obligation to fill out a report — even if it were only holding their hand.”
“If a student is tearing things apart from a room,” Hall said, “unless that child is in harm’s way — what the law is saying is, ‘You can’t stop that child — if you do, that’s illegal.”
“Then, we should seriously consider putting cameras in school buses so they record exactly what happens,” Carter said. “It would not be beyond our financial ability to install cameras in each bus and protect the bus driver who has a greater responsibility of watching where he’s going so he doesn’t drive off the road and injure 43 kids.”
“I think we ought to be careful about overreacting to the (physical restraint and seclusion) law,” the superintendent cautioned. “I do hear what you’re saying, John, but I think we need to play it out.”
“After you have been put at the receiving end of parental wrath,” stated Carter.
Supt. MacDonald said it is “highly probable” that administrators “will be back next fall or winter with a revised version” of the policy on physical restraint and seclusion.
“The focus is not just on reaction, but on de-escalation — how you stop it before it gets to that level,” said Hall.
Saying he hoped to put “a positive spin” on the subject of physical restraint and seclusion, Denmark Elementary School Principal Mark Schrader said, “This (policy) pertains to a small percentage of kids — we’re not talking about an every day occurrence.”
“It is the law, and we have to follow it,” SAD 72 School Board Chairman Patricia White said. “To me, this is a little bit of overkill, but we have to follow it.”