Submitting a public information request related to the use of restraint and seclusion

Some states have state-level reporting for the use of restraint and seclusion. However, many states that collect data do not make the data easily accessible by members of the public. It is always worth reaching out to your state department of education and asking if they collect restraint and seclusion data and where you can find it. 

Making a public information act request   

What if you question the data that you find on the CRDC website? What if your state has no state-level reporting requirements? You might consider making a public information act (PIA) or freedom of information act (FOIA) request. A PIA request is a way to request information from a state or local agency, much like a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for federal requests. All fifty states have freedom of information laws that govern documents at state and local levels.

When making a request, the first thing you need to determine is the custodian of the information you are seeking. In the case of restraint and seclusion data, we may start with our local education agency or school district. You might also consider requesting data from your state department of education. To find information about submitting a request, you can search for the name of the agency and a term like “public information request.” This search should you find the contact and process to make a request. 

The next question is, what data should you request, and what information is essential to include in your request? Here are a few ideas/suggestions of things you might request or include in your request.  

Begin by specifying the period for which you are requesting data. For example, you might request data from September 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021.  

To get data for a specific school or district, you might request the number of physical restraint incidents and/or the number of seclusion incidents for each student who had at least one physical restraint or seclusion incident. Request that the data is disaggregated by the student’s jurisdiction, disability, race, gender, age, and type of placement. It may be helpful to include your state’s definition for restraint and seclusion in the request.

If you are trying to learn the details about each instance of restraint and/or seclusion usage, you might ask for logs and documentation for each instance that includes the following:

  • the date of the incident;
  • the beginning and end times of the incident;
  • a description of any relevant events leading up to the incident;
  • a description of any interventions used before the implementation of seclusion and/or restraint;
  • type of restraint(s) used in the incident;
  • a narrative description of the incident and/or student behavior that resulted in seclusion or restraint;
  • a description of any injuries (students, staff, or others) or property damage;
  • a description of any planned approach to dealing with the student’s behavior in the future;
  • a list of the school personnel who participated in the implementation, monitoring, and supervision of the seclusion and/or restraint instance;
  • the date on which parental notification took place; and
  • records that show the staff members who participated in the restraint and/or seclusion instance were trained in and permitted to use physical restraint when the event occurred

You might ask for details about seclusion rooms, for example:

  • A listing of all schools in the district that have seclusion rooms or spaces used for seclusion;
  • Location of the rooms;
  • Proximity of rooms or areas to special education classrooms;
  • The dimensions of the seclusion spaces and whether the space is padded;
  • Number of electrical outlets in the space;
  • Type of ventilation in the room or area;
  • Date of last inspection (fire and state required);
  • Type of locking mechanism on the door (if any); and
  • A photograph of each seclusion room or area or permission to photograph.

Specify the format you would like to receive the information, digital or print. You may suggest that student names be redacted as necessary. You should be aware that there may be a cost associated with fulfilling the request. You might ask that they notify you of any fees for searching or copying the records that exceed a certain amount that you specify. You might also request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest. Finally, ask that the documents be provided within the time limit described in state law. There are many template and sample request letters online.    

Now what?

Now you wait. The school or local education agency should contact you within the time limit specified by state law. The school or local education agency may fulfill the request, wouldn’t that be great. However, sometimes that does not happen. They may say that they are unable to complete your request for a host of reasons. They may also come back and offer to fulfill the request but state that it will cost an absurd amount of money.

If your PIA request is denied, make sure that it is in writing. Ask that the school or LEA explains: (1) the reasons for the denial; (2) if an exemption is invoked, ask for a brief explanation why the denial is necessary and why redacting information would not address the reasons for the denial; (3) the legal authority for the denial; (4) notice of the remedies for review of the denial.  

Good luck! Let us know about your experience, and don’t give up.  

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