Schools in Massachusetts will be subject to new limits on physically restraining or isolating public school students under reforms ushered in late last year.
School staff members will no longer be permitted to pin students face-down on the floor in most instances and will need a principal's approval to keep children in a "time out" away from class for more than a half-hour. The changes -- which will be phased in this fall and officially take effect in January 2016 -- also require state officials to collect comprehensive data on how often schools restrain or seclude students and how often someone is hurt as a result.
Massachusetts' reforms were shaped, in part, by a June story by ProPublica and NPR that showed physical holds and isolation remain common in public schools across the country. Our analysis of federal data revealed these techniques were used more than 267,000 times in the 2012 school year, with some schools employing them dozens – or even hundreds – of times.
There's a growing awareness that, in some cases, children can suffer serious injuries and lasting trauma from such treatment. At least 20 children have died while being held down or left alone in seclusion rooms.
Spurred by tougher state and federal regulations, as well as professional standards, psychiatric and health care institutions have worked diligently over the past decade to limit their use of restraints and seclusion.
But rules governing public schools have remained more scattershot. The U.S. Department of Education issued restrictions, but made them voluntary. State and local authorities passed a patchwork of regulations that left dangerous techniques illegal in some places but perfectly acceptable in others. For instance, some states don't let schools use restraints that can restrict breathing – such as face-down "prone" restraints –on any children. But others do.
Massachusetts followed few of the half-dozen best practices for safe use of restraints and seclusion outlined in the federal guidelines and a proposed national reform bill, ProPublica's reporting showed. The Disability Law Center, an advocacy group, pointed out in a white paper submitted to officials reexamining Massachusetts' rules that the state compared poorly to its New England neighbors.