A new report finds that students in Maine are restrained and secluded within their schools approximately 13,000 times per year. Educational advocates want to see reforms at the state level to bring those numbers down.
The report, from the advocacy group Disability Rights Maine, comes five years after the state rewrote its regulations for the use of restraint and seclusion. Currently, the state requires that schools provide a written report whenever a staff member restrains a student, meaning they hold a student down or limit their movements; and when they seclude a student, meaning a staff member forces a student to sit alone in a room.
Educators say these techniques are necessary to help control behavioral outbursts. Ben Jones, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Maine, disagrees.
“They’re dangerous. And they’re ineffective,” he says.
Jones points to research, including a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education, that says these techniques aren’t effective and should only be used in “emergency” situations when a student could harm himself or others.
So it surprised Jones when his organization studied the new state data and found that since 2013, Maine schools were using restraints and secluding students approximately 13,000 times per year.
“So these are only to be used in emergency situations,” he says. “So if there are 13,000 emergencies happening in schools per year over the past four years. And these are dangerous, ineffective interventions. So the number hit us.”
While that number is large, it does need some context. State data show that those 13,000 incidents in 2016 involved about 1,800 students total. In addition, state data show that the problem is much worse in special-purpose schools for students with severe disabilities.
Disability Rights Maine found that even though these schools hold less than one percent of Maine’s student population, they account for 55 percent of the reported use of restraints and seclusions.
In a written statement, Department of Education spokeswoman Rachel Paling said the department will “always be concerned” with any figures related to restraint and seclusion, no matter how high. She added that the report has also already led to some reforms at the state level, including significant changes in how the state collects data from individual schools.
Despite the latest findings, both educational officials and advocates say things are going in the right direction. In a 2014 report to the Maine Legislature, educators from across Maine said new state regulations on restraint and seclusion gave them more clarity on how to interact with students during outbursts.
“Overall, I think that they’ve been embracing the new rule,” says Deb Davis, an educational advocate who helped shape the new regulations.
Davis agrees that conditions have improved for teachers and students. However, she says the new report shows that many schools are still restraining and secluding students far too much. To fix the problem, she says she wants the state to work with schools and give them resources to help them stop situations from escalating.
“So in some ways, by focusing so much on the crisis, it’s not really helping us,” she says. “We need to do the work beforehand so we don’t get to that point.”
Paling says the Education Department will continue to look for ways to support those efforts within schools. However, it remains to be seen whether that will lower rates of restraint and seclusion in the future.