After years of sometimes-disappointing efforts in Congress, activists—including advocates for people with disabilities—are finding state legislatures fertile ground for fighting against the practice of restraint and seclusion in schools.
In recent weeks, Virginia lawmakers have voted in favor of regulations that would restrict the behavioral-modification tactics, replacing what had been "informational" guidance that placed no mandate on schools. Other states that have imposed restrictions recently include Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Ohio. More than 20 states have restrictions around restraint and seclusion for all students, according to one advocate's tally.
"In varying levels, there's probably some group in every single state working on [restraint and seclusion]," said Eric Buehlmann, the deputy executive director for public policy for the National Disability Rights Network in Washington.
Not all bills are successful. In Mississippi, a bill to restrict the practice did not make it out of the legislature last year. And some education groups oppose the restrictions. For example, AASA, the School Superintendents' Association, has argued that policy should not be built around rare, inappropriate uses. Used properly, restraint and seclusion can be tools to keep school staff and other students safe, the organization argues.
The Virginia Association of School Superintendents opposed the legislation in that state, saying that districts will have to bear the costs of training personnel in other behavioral management techniques.
"We consider this an unfunded mandate on the part of the General Assembly," said Howard B. "Ben" Kiser, the executive director of VASS. "We're more than happy to work with the state board over the next several months to establish fair and appropriate regulations, but the training [costs are] still there."
Among the challenges in restricting the practice is that restraint and seclusion incidents are not well reported. The news organization ProPublica, which has been investigating restraint and seclusion abuses in schools, noted in a recent report that the 1 million-student New York City school district reported zero instances of restraint in the 2011-12 school year, as did Chicago, Los Angeles, and other districts.