A critical window of time is closing to protect America's kids against restraint and seclusion in schools. According to data just released from the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 107,000 kids were subjected to physical restraint or were confined to seclusion rooms in schools during the years 2011 and 2012.
To protect kids nationally, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-California, have introduced the federal Keeping All Students Safe Act (Senate Bill 2036; House Resolution 1893), which would ban the use of restraints and seclusion in schools except in cases of a bona fide emergency. However, with Harkin and Miller, both passionate champions of this issue and legislation, set to retire from Congress at the end of this year, the fate of this bill protecting students against restraint and seclusion in school is uncertain if the bill is not passed during this session.
As a journalist who has covered child welfare issues over four decades, the story of the use of physical restraint and seclusion rooms in schools remains a deeply personal one for me. In 2006, I learned that my daughter Rose, who was 6 at the time, had been locked inside a broom closet in the basement stairwell of her school in Lexington, Massachusetts, over a three-month period, sometimes for up to several times in a day. She was found naked, standing in her own pee, after she removed her clothes so as not to soil herself. I would later write about her horrific treatment and expose the widespread use of restraints and seclusion rooms in schools across the country, setting off a firestorm in communities nationwide over these shocking practices.
Parents, journalists and lawmakers mobilized throughout the country and visited their local schools to find out if restraint and seclusion were being used with their kids. In many cases, they were shocked to find out that they were. Over the past 18 months, state and local legislation and rules limiting or banning the use of restraints and seclusion in schools were passed.
In Reno, Nevada, for example, 12 seclusion rooms that were found to have been in use had their doors removed, were repainted, and other uses were found for the spaces, with Frank Selvaggio, the student service director, saying, "The vast majority of our educators would never even think of trying to do something inappropriate like forcing a child to go into a room."
In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a 2013 law that prohibits use of restraints in schools.
And the issue cuts across the legislative aisle: In Arizona, conservative Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation into law in April 2013 that limits the use of seclusion rooms in schools.
However, currently only 19 states have laws on the books restricting the use of physical restraints and seclusion rooms with students in schools. In Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Jersey and South Dakota there have been no laws limiting the use of restraints and seclusion in schools, not even ones mandating that parents be notified when their children are subjected to these practices. The wide range of rules nationwide has led Miller to compare the situation to "the Wild West."
Meanwhile, the toll on kids is high. Of the 70,000 students who were subjected to physical restraint and 37,000 who were confined to seclusion rooms during 2011 and 2012, according to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights data, students with special needs or disabilities were disproportionately affected. While students with special needs represent only 12 percent of the national student population, they represent 58 percent of those who were placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75 percent of those who were physically restrained at school. Students of color with disabilities represent 36 percent of those who were physically restrained at school, despite accounting for only 19 percent of all students nationally.
And the outcome for kids can be fatal. Sixteen year-old Corey Foster died while being restrained on a school basketball court in Yonkers, NY, and 13-year-old Jonathan King hanged himself in a Georgia school after being left alone in a seclusion room, leading to a statewide ban on the use of isolation rooms.
At the February 12 introduction of the Senate Keeping All Students Safe Act, Harkin compared the seclusion rooms he had seen in schools with cells for terrorists at the military prison that he visited in Guantanamo, Cuba, and Robert Ernst, a former student from Lexington, Massachusetts, described being dragged into and then locked in a seclusion room at his school.
"Hearing the stories of these students and parents - and the legal challenges they faced when seeking change - it became clear that strong action was necessary to help them and thousands of families like them. I introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act to ensure that we put an end to these practices, which have no place in the classroom," Harkin said in a statement to the Huffington Post.
Both sponsors of the bill, Harkin and Miller, are retiring from Congress in 2014. In their absence, advocates are concerned that it will likely be difficult to get this legislation introduced and passed in future sessions.
"In order for the Keeping All Students Safe Act to become law this Congress, it needs to start moving through committee . . . in the spring or early summer in order to see it pass the full Congress this fall," Julia Krahe, the spokeswoman for Miller's Committee on Education and the Workforce, told the Huffington Post.
Staff members of both the Senate and House committees agree that it's critical that concerned parents, advocates, educators and the public call Washington and let their federal senators and representative know how they feel about the use of restraints and seclusion in schools and the importance of the Keeping All Students Safe Act. Without that groundswell of support, they say, the bill may well die.
May 8 is Children's Mental Health Day, and it has been targeted as a National Day of Calling to Keep Students Safe. It's critical that you and others you know pick up the phone and call your senators and representative to let them know how you feel about physical restraints and seclusion rooms in school and about the Keeping All Students Safe Act.