A recent report by investigative news organization ProPublica exposes a controversial but legal practice in public schools. Students, often those with disabilities, can be restrained and secluded against their will. Nationwide, there are 20 known cases of death because of restraint or seclusion in the past two decades, with injuries far more common.
While each state has its own laws guiding the practice of restraint and seclusion, Connecticut schools permit these techniques in situations where there is a physical threat to the student or others. In some cases, special education students’ individualized education programs (IEPs) specifically allow for seclusion. State law requires that all incidents involving special education students be recorded and that parents be notified. This does not apply to the rest of the student population. Connecticut also bans some of the most dangerous restraint holds, which can restrict breathing.
Restraints are defined as any hold restricting the students’ arms, legs, or torso. “Mechanical” restraints -- illegal here in Connecticut -- use tools like cords or handcuffs to restrain. Seclusion refers to incidents where a child is isolated, often in a locked room, until calm.
"There's been a lot of research done on restraint and seclusion," said Connecticut's Child Advocate Sarah Eagan on WNPR's Where We Live. "And virtually universally, research and experts tell us that these practices do not help individuals, that they can be very harmful, that they can be very traumatic, and that they are completely unproven and ineffective in reducing the problem behaviors that precipitate their use."
Listen to more from Sarah Eagan's appearance on Where We Live here:
For both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the state Board of Education has commissioned a report on these incidents in order to keep track and improve upon state practices, from reducing incidents to "targeted technical assistance and trainings in scenarios involving potential underreporting."
According to the Hartford Courant, “Although the education department has no specific strategy to reduce those practices, the report says that the continued examination of the data will inform ‘technical assistance and trainings’ that promote the use of positive interventions and reduce reliance on restraint and seclusion.”
Connecticut is unique in that it follows up on all reported incidents to see if the student suffered any injury. This past year, there were 378 reported incidents of restraint or seclusion in Connecticut public that resulted in injury to the student. According to the state report, the majority of recorded injuries last year were non-serious, with ten meeting the definition for serious injury. Non-serious injuries would be a red mark, bruise, or scrape, that require only basic first aid. Serious injuries could include the need for sutures, x-ray, or other more complex medical care.
The 2012-13 Connecticut Board of Education annual report on the state’s use of restraint and seclusion notes that there was a 55 percent decrease in injuries from the previous year, although the number of serious injuries by a count of two.
Key findings include:
- There were over 33,700 recorded incidents of restraint and seclusion in the state’s public schools in the 2012-13 school year
- A total of 2,455 children accounted for these incidents
- 32 of those students were restrained or secluded over 100 times
- Just over 3.5 percent of special education students in state were restrained or secluded at least once last year
If a student outside of the special education system were restrained or secluded, this information would not be included in the report.
Connecticut tracks the primary disability for every student restrained or secluded. Autism accounts for 40.4 percent of all emergency incidents and almost half of all seclusions via IEP. Minority students are also at greater risk of experiencing these control tactics.
While African American students make up only 15.8 percent of students in the special education system, they account for nearly a quarter of all students restrained or secluded.
Under-reporting of incidents remains a concern in Connecticut and across the nation.