Meet the Groups Fighting Against Limits on Restraining School Kids

ProPublica Staff

Washington, DC, United States (ProPublica) – by Heather Vogell

Few would dispute that school staffers should physically restrain children rarely and should tell parents when they can’t avoid doing so.

But turning this proposition into the law of the land has proven surprisingly difficult.

Even as awareness has grown about the frequency with which schools use restraints – and about the injuries that can result from such practices – federal bills to curtail the use of restraints have stalled. As ProPublica detailed last week, public schools put children in restraints or so-called seclusion, holding them in a room against their will, at least 267,000 times in just one school year.

Teachers, high school principals and the U.S. Department of Education have all endorsed the idea of limiting the use of restraints to emergencies.

“We’ve had young people die in restraint and seclusion,” U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., told ProPublica. “I don’t know how much more serious it has to get.”

But lobbies representing school district leaders and boards have combined with congressional Republicans to stymie such legislation.

Prominent Republicans say that even if restraints should be limited, the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of setting school policy and the matter should be left up to state and local leaders. Of the House bill’s 41 co-sponsors, just three are Republicans.

Among the opponents is Rep. John Kline, R-MN, the chairman of the House’s education committee. ProPublica’s calls to Kline’s office were not returned. But back in 2012, a spokeswoman for Kline told ABC News, “Chairman Kline believes state officials and school leaders are best equipped to determine appropriate policies that should be in place to protect students and to hold those who violate those policies accountable.”

Two school lobbies – school district leaders and school boards – also oppose the bill. The administrators have long been among the bills’ most vocal opponents.

“AASA refuses to accept the idea,” the American Association of School Administrators wrote in a 2012 position paper it still supports, “that public school employees are over-using seclusion and restraint and/or using it inappropriately.”

The administrators association and the National School Boards Association issued a joint statement this past February blasting the current Senate bill as “a federal overreach” that “fails to recognize the need for local school personnel to make decisions based on their onsite, real-time assessment of the situation.”

In addition to banning restraints except to prevent serious physical harm, the bills would require schools to notify parents and bar educators from using “mechanical” restraints such as ropes or belts. Seclusion would be prohibited in the Senate bill or limited to emergencies in the House version.

The administrators’ group says the legislation would remove an option to help school personnel manage difficult students, and lead schools to send more disabled students to restrictive settings, such as residential institutions.

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