A 17-year-old Ohio girl died in 2008 in a home for troubled children after her caretakers pinned her face-down on the floor.
A ban on that dangerous type of restraint was decreed, and a task force was convened to make rules to govern both restraining and secluding Ohio children.
There was a firestorm, and then … nothing. No policy was adopted, and schools throughout Ohio continue to restrain and seclude special-needs children with little regulation or oversight. But as accounts of inappropriate restraint and seclusion of Columbus students made news this year, the Ohio Department of Education restarted the task force and says a new draft policy will be completed this month.
“It has not laid completely dormant,” said Sasheen Phillips, who heads the department’s special-needs division.
This report is a collaborative effort by The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio, a project of NPR and Ohio public radio stations examining the effects of public policy on people’s lives. See more at Dispatch.com and on the StateImpact Ohio website.
But the discussion about whether or how to regulate seclusion in schools has continued in the U.S. for nearly four decades. In Ohio, advocates for children with disabilities have been prodding the department to keep the issue alive. They have testified before the State Board of Education over the past year, pleading for action. Many are pushing for a policy that would bar schools from secluding or isolating students at all.
That’s not going to happen, Phillips said. The policy also won’t ban forcibly restraining children.
The policy now in the works says that seclusion is OK if the child is “in imminent danger” of serious physical harm to herself or others. Locking doors wouldn’t be allowed, though shutting doors would be OK.
That goes further than the 2009 proposal, which didn’t specify that the anticipated harm by the out-of-control child had to be physical. That meant kids could be secluded if they damaged property, for example.
Placing children in other types of “time-out,” in which they might be put in a room alone but not physically locked in, is permissible under the latest draft of the policy.
Other highlights of the proposed policy:
- Staff members who seclude students would have to be “appropriately trained.” The proposed policy doesn’t say what that means.
- Students in seclusion rooms would have to be watched continuously. Teachers couldn’t put a student inside and then walk away.
- Schools that seclude students would have to document each incident and then tell the child’s parents about it within 24 hours.
Many advocates say that doesn’t go far enough to protect children.
“In other settings, seclusion is banned,” said Sue Tobin, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Legal Rights Service, a state agency that aims to protect people with disabilities. “The practice can continue, and it’s likely that kids will be hurt.”
The proposed policy would prohibit using seclusion as punishment or as a convenience for school workers. It needs to prohibit any seclusion, said Margaret Burley, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities, based in Marion.
“It’s too convenient to have a place to put somebody. We used to have places we put a lot of people — they’re called state institutions,” she said.
School districts say that seclusion already is a last-resort safety measure. But districts’ own records show that many isolate special-needs students for being difficult, disruptive or noncompliant.
Not everyone wants a policy.
“Whether seclusion rooms make sense for school districts is a local decision, not a state or federal policy decision,” said Sasha Pudelski, the government-affairs manager for the American Association of School Administrators, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Her group believes that if seclusion and restraint are banned in schools, they won’t be able to teach kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, said that argument is “bogus.” He introduced a bill last year that would ban seclusion and limit physical restraint in schools that receive federal money. There has been testimony in committee, but no action yet.
“What allows students with challenging behaviors to be taught in integrated settings … is good preventative behavior management, highly engaging teaching, and knowledge of supports these students need,” Harkin said in an email.
Some Ohio school districts say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach before they decide whether a statewide policy is a good idea.
“I don’t know that we have a need for it, but if it’s there, we’ll follow it,” said Betsy Hutchinson, the director of pupil services for elementary schools in the Olentangy district.
Some school officials worry that it could be too prescriptive. But others say they see a need to write specific district-level policies and procedures, especially with all the attention on seclusion and restraint right now.
“There really is no policy, there is no guidance around the use of that space. To me, that’s a problem,” said Deborah Turner, who oversees special education for Middletown schools in southwestern Ohio. She said her district’s policy likely will mirror the state’s final product.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” she said of Middletown’s seclusion practices, “but I certainly wouldn’t want it to become one.”