By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Advocates and parents of children with special needs want the Indiana Legislature to require schools to have clear guidelines on when to use physical restraints and isolation rooms to discipline students.
The push for the legislation follows a report released by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year that found tens of thousands of students across the U.S. — most of whom are disabled — have been strapped down, physically restrained, or locked into isolation rooms by teachers or school staff to keep order in their classrooms. In some cases, the techniques have led to injury and death.
Members of a state legislative study committee heard testimony Wednesday about documented incidents involving students with autism or other disabilities who’ve been duct-taped to chairs, locked in dark rooms, stuffed into filing cabinets, or subject to other punitive measures using physical, mechanical and even “chemical” restraints.
But the frequency of these incidents in Indiana schools is unknown since there are no reporting requirements nor statewide standards for what seclusion and restraint techniques are appropriate or when they can be used.
“Indiana remains one of 19 states without any rules or regulations governing this type of activity,” said state Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, who thinks schools need better guidance and more training on how to discipline students with behavioral problems.
Any proposed legislation on the use of restraints and isolation rooms is likely to cover all students — not just those with physical, emotional or mental disabilities.
“We need to be concerned about the safety of all students,” said state Rep. Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute, chairman of the legislative Committee on Autism, which has taken up the issue.
Currently, the Indiana Department of Education encourages local school corporations to develop their own policies on the use of restraints and isolation techniques. But there is no requirement to do so, leaving the state with a patchwork of policies and practices.
Kim Dodson, an advocate for the disabled and associate executive director for The Arc of Indiana, said the patchwork approach is no longer working.
“We have statutes (covering the use of restraints and isolation) that protect people living in long-term care facilities and people in our state prisons and even kids in juvenile justice centers,” Dodson said. “But nothing in statute for our students in schools.”
Joan McCormick of the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education spoke out against a state law that would set statewide standards.
McCormick acknowledged there had been incidents of abuse involving restraints and isolation rooms and she called for better training of teachers. But she said local school corporations should be allowed to determine their own policies with oversight from their local school boards.
Dodson and others are convinced the state needs to step in. They’re concerned that the increasing demands placed on schools and teachers — including educating more students with special needs — has led to a greater use of restraint and isolation techniques as a first resort for discipline rather than a last resort.
Dodson favors legislation that would require every school corporation to have a policy on the use of isolation and restraint techniques and would require schools to notify parents when those techniques are used. She also wants the legislation to require more training for teachers and administrators.
The issue is of particular importance to parents of students with special needs. The U.S. Department of Education study released earlier this year found that about 70 percent of the nearly 40,000 students who were restrained or isolated in seclusion rooms during the 2009-10 school year had learning, behavioral, physical or developmental needs. The study also found that African-American and Hispanic students were also disproportionately isolated or restrained.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.