Restraint and Seclusion in Schools

“Every child deserves to be treated with dignity,
be free from abuse,
and treated as a unique individual
with individual needs, strengths and circumstances.

US Department of Education booklet, 2012.

More often than I would like, a parent in our Facebook group asks, “My child was restrained today. What can I do?” Or a variety of that concern. And, more often than should happen, well-intended but misinformed parents pipe up, “They can’t do that! That’s illegal!”

Sadly, it’s not. In most states, it is still perfectly legal to restrain and seclude out kids. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. Like the 7-year-old who was locked in a windowless room for dozens of school days, without lunch or bathroom breaks. But, rather than dwell on the worst, let’s focus on what we can control.

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seclusion and restraint

Here is what parents need to know about Seclusion and Restraint.

What IEP parents need to know about Restraint and Seclusion.

Restraint and seclusion in schools is not illegal. It varies by state. Some states have addressed it thoroughly, others have not. But the blanket “It’s illegal!” is not a correct statement. I wish! Here are two great resources for you about restraint and seclusion for all 50 states. The Dept of Ed list is quite thorough. In any event, make sure that you read up on your state’s laws and guidelines. And remember, there is a difference between a law, guideline, and policy.

Seclusion and Restraint Laws

Restraint and Seclusion Resources

Here are the links to those documents, in case the embedded document is not working.

What Student Restraint “Looks Like”

Restraint and seclusion in schools can look very different from place to place. It’s not always the textbook, stereotypical image of a school resource officer tackling a kid, and holding him down and then handcuffing and shackling him. Sadly, sometimes it is that dramatic.

I had a child one time (client) and he was kept in a Rifton chair, all day, every day. With the tray attached in front of him, of course. It was beyond his skill level to free himself. They were doing it to keep him in one spot. That’s restraint. It doesn’t have to be a locked room.

If a staff person is standing in the doorway preventing the child from leaving the room, that’s seclusion too. It also can be your child being asked to remain in the classroom while the rest of the group goes to recess or a special. The USDOE has a handy booklet that defines the different kinds of restraints and seclusion, as well as outlining some best practices.

Different Names for Restraint and Seclusion.

A rose by any other name. Very rarely does a parent get the call, “We had to put your child in the seclusion room today.” There are dozens and dozens of names for it. Not sure why they don’t just call a spade a spade, other than to try to gaslight themselves into thinking they do not use restraint and seclusion. It might be called a quiet room. A restoration room. A calm down room. The thinking room. It’s still a wolf in sheep’s clothing, your child was secluded.

It needs to be eliminated. It’s on its way out, but we are not there yet. But what we do know is that it is harmful to the child, often both physically and psychologically. And, surprise, surprise….it doesn’t work!

Seclusion and restraint unfairly targets disabilities and minorities. I’m not going to quote and link a whole bunch of different studies like I usually do….but much like other disciplinary policies and procedures, despite making up a small number of the student population, children who are disabled and/or minorities represent a disproportionate number of children that are the victims of restraint and seclusion.

restraints seclusion in schools special education

What can parents do about Restraint and Seclusion at school?

Be proactive. One of the things that makes me really dislike the concepts of restraint and seclusion is that it is so reactive. Not proactive at all! “Let’s not give the kid supports, let’s just lock ‘him up when he acts out!” But you as the parent can be proactive.

Special Education and Restraint: Tips for Parents.

  • Read your state’s policy and laws on this.
  • Now, go to your school’s site and read your school policy on it. Can’t find it? Email the Special Ed director and ask for it.
  • Get it in the IEP. Ask for FBA, behavior plan and crisis/de-escalation plan. If segregating your child and locking him/her in an empty room is only going to amp them up, why in the world would you do that? But it happens! So put it in the IEP that you do not want restraints and seclusion used on your child and list several alternatives. Put it in Parent Concerns. Yes, they can do this. None of this “Oh we can’t do that” or “We don’t do that here.”
  • Stay in open, honest communication with your child’s team.
  • If it does happen, document everything immediately, as far as what you know and what your child told you. As part of your school’s policy, they should have some reporting mechanism. Ask for a copy.
  • Here are some tips on what to include in your letter to the school.

Be active with other parents. Attend school board meetings. Keep giving them the data, especially from the Dept of Ed. Ask for it to be changed. Ask that your district move over to a restorative justice disciplinary system. Create change!

Meet with people who can create change. Call the Department of Ed. Tell them, “Hey, I read your booklets. However at my school, this is happening, what can I do?” File OCR complaints if you feel your child has been discriminated against. Ask to meet with your school board representative.

Edited to add: Many of you have taken the time to write to me, disagreeing with my opinion. Most of you brought up the issue of the safety of other students in the classroom. That’s a very valid point. But I still stand by my opinion and my assertion that restraint and seclusion be considered LAST when dealing with some difficult students. Currently, in my opinion, in many places, it is considered first and used too often. This is based on personal experience over 10 years, having contact with literally thousands of families.

No, we cannot have dangerous kids in classrooms, especially if there are students in that classroom who are unable to defend themselves. But locking kids in closets isn’t the answer either. And that is happening. We can keep the students safe without locking some of them in closets. It can be done. Science tells us it’s not effective in behavior management, the Dept of Ed agrees. So why is it so often the ‘go to’ item for many schools? Needs to be looked into and changed.

I can tell you this–unless parents demand it, nothing is going to change.

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