Now, the brutal manner of [George] Floyd’s death is highlighting how the practice of restraining children with similar techniques remains commonplace in Minnesota schools — and in districts across the country.
Even though state policymakers have worked for years to reduce the prevalence of “physical holds” in Minnesota schools — including a 2015 ban on the face-to-the-ground “prone restraint” used against Floyd — educators employ the tactic thousands of times each year to subdue students, state and federal data show. Such restraints often come with devastating consequences for children including injury and, in rare cases, death.
Even as the pandemic shuttered schools nationwide last spring, more than 2,800 students were subjected to more than 12,600 instances of physical restraint during the 2019-20 school year, according to a recent Minnesota Department of Education report. That’s a significant 25 percent drop from the year prior, which state education officials believe is due in large part to campus closures during COVID-19, but also recent statewide efforts to reduce educators’ reliance on the practice, training them instead how to de-escalate conflicts using preventative techniques, like positive behavioral interventions and supports.
Nationally, more than 74,000 students were subjected to physical or mechanical restraint in the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That year, more than 2,400 Minnesota students were subjected to more than 11,600 instances of physical restraint. Minnesota, along with Texas and a cluster of Midwestern states, including Illinois and Iowa, were among the most frequent users of the practice, according to a 2019 analysis by ProPublica and The Chicago Tribune. In a blockbuster 2019 investigation, the news organizations found that Illinois schools frequently put students, most of them with disabilities, in padded “seclusion rooms” for reasons that violate state law, like refusing to complete schoolwork or using profanity.
The data, which is self-reported by local school districts to federal education officials, is likely a significant undercount. A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog agency, found that the Department of Education’s quality control procedures for data collection are “largely ineffective or do not exist.”