Restraint and seclusion are crisis management strategies that are used in many schools across the nation and the world. Physical Restraint, is exactly what it sounds like, it is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs or head freely. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. These interventions are dangerous and have led to serious injuries and even death in students, teachers and staff.
According to federal guidance restraint and/or seclusion should never be used except in situations where a child’s behavior poses an imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others, and restraint and seclusion should be avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff. The important wording here is “serious physical harm”, these measures are not intended merely for unsafe situations, but rather to situations that could result in death or serious bodily injury. As such based on federal guidance restraint and seclusion should be exceedingly rare. However, it has been found that restraint and seclusion are occurring far more frequently in schools across the nation and are not always limited to situations that involve imminent serious physical harm.
The practices of restraint and seclusion disproportionately impact children with disabilities, minorities, and boys. Often it is the youngest children that are most frequently secluded and restrained, many of these children as young as 5, 6 and 7 years old. One must accept that these young and often disabled children are exhibiting behaviors that are so dangerous that they could lead to death or serious bodily injury. The use of restraint and seclusion leads to significant trauma in students teachers and staff. Using restraint and seclusion increases the chance of injury and even death. These crisis management techniques are intended to be measures of last resort for a good reason, they are dangerous and many injuries occur in staff who are using these techniques.
We can make classrooms across the nations safer for students, teachers, and staff by reducing and eliminating restraint and seclusion. We have reviewed the research and what we have found is that there is no data to support the use of seclusion in a school setting (perhaps any setting). In fact, seclusion leads to increased aggression and more frequent challenging behaviors. Seclusion should be prohibited across the nation as it has been in several states including Hawaii, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, and Pennsylvania. We support the re-introduction of the “Keeping All Students Safe Act” which would ban seclusion across the nation. We are concerned, as is the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that the use of seclusion and restraint is a civil rights issue. Like the Government Accountability Office (GAO), we are concerned the use of seclusion and restraint is often underreported by school districts and poses a serious danger to children. We believe that the use of seclusion violates the constitutional rights of children (see Tinker vs. Des Moines). We also agree with the United Nations that the use of seclusion and restraint violate basic human rights.
There are better ways to work with children. Sometime school staff ask what other methods would keep staff and students safe when working with “violent students”. We, of course, believe that behavior is communication. Many times children are not intending to “give you a hard time”, but rather are “having a hard time”. We do not believe that there are many “extremely violent students” in our schools, but acknowledge that when a child’s needs are not appropriately met that they may exhibit challenging behaviors that are dangerous at times. So back to the question, what options do we have for working with children that exhibit challenging behaviors? First, we should leverage modern neuroscience when working with children that exhibit challenging behaviors. Second, we need to make sure these children’s needs are appropriately being met if restraint and/or seclusion are being used repeatedly on a student the US Department of Education provided guidance in a Dear Colleague Letter that indicates the current array of supports is not appropriate.
We should be considering proactive solutions and not rely solely on crisis management. Approaches like the Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach from Dr. Ross Greene and Lives in the Balance is a great example of a proactive approach. In fact, Dr. Greene and Lives in the Balance are working with school districts show how proactive approaches and reduce and eliminate restraint and seclusion. A key tenant of the CPS model is that “kids do well if they can” if children are not doing well, it is sometimes a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems – issues that can be addressed proactively. There are also better approaches to crisis management, such as Ukeru, developed by Grafton Integrated Health. Ukeru is a trauma-informed crisis management approach that focuses on de-escalation and a concept called “comfort vs. control”. We can look to states like Hawaii, which prohibited seclusion and learn from them. We can look at case studies like the Centennial School in Pennsylvania. We can significantly reduce the use of restraint and eliminate seclusion, we know this because others have successfully done it.