How often do teachers and educators in Washington seclude or restrain students when they pose a threat to themselves or to others?

That’s not an easy question to answer, judging from the data that school districts self-report to both the state and federal governments.

While such measures to control student behavior are supposed to be a last resort, the U.S. Department of Education has launched an initiative to crack down on what it calls the “inappropriate” use of seclusion and restraint among students with disabilities. But the extent of those disciplinary actions for all students remains less than clear, according to a new report.

As recent as February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that public schools nationwide rarely turn to the controversial methods of physically restraining students or isolating them in a separate room to de-escalate a dangerous situation. Now, the same federal watchdog has questioned the reliability of the data it used to come to that conclusion.

In a report released earlier this week, the GAO found that 70% of the more than 17,000 school districts in the U.S. reported zero incidents of restraining or secluding students during the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

“Our findings raise serious concerns about underreporting and misreporting of the use of seclusion and restraint,” Jackie Nowicki, a director at the GAO and author of the report, told the WAMU public-radio station in Washington, D.C. “It is therefore not possible to know the extent of the use of seclusion and restraint nationwide.”

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In Washington, the new federal report said that nearly three out of four school districts similarly reported zero such incidents.

“I’m hard-pressed to understand how any large school districts could report no incidents,” said Tim Garberich, director of elementary programs and occupational/physical therapy services for the Edmonds school district.

There’s not much more clarity in Washington, where state officials have attempted to collect more accurate data on seclusion and restraint, though they acknowledge there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Every two years, school districts in the U.S. must self-report data about student demographics, teacher experience and more to the federal education department as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection. As for student discipline, the federal department defines restraint as any restriction of a student’s freedom of movement and seclusion as the involuntary confinement of a student to a room or space that they cannot leave. (In Washington, the state refers to seclusion as isolation.)

In its most recent report, the GAO noted that school districts must certify their data as “true and correct,” but found the 2015-16 data inaccurately captures all incidents. The GAO, in fact, found some school districts with incomplete data chose to report zero incidents rather than leaving the field blank.

In Washington, several of the state’s largest school districts — including Everett, Lake Washington and Tacoma, with a combined enrollment of more than 82,000 students — reported zero incidents.

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For the 2015-16 school year, Edmonds school reported 1,195 incidents of seclusion or restraint.

“If anything, we probably overreport,” Garberich said. “I’m a stickler because I want families to know (and) I want staff to know if something happens. We need to examine it.”

State officials said they would not comment on the GAO report, citing their reliance on local data instead.

That reporting is more up to date. For the 2017-18 school year, it showed found that about 40% of school districts in Washington state reported zero incidents of seclusion or restraint.

“Our own data collection has been incremental, in terms of its growing quality,” said Martin Mueller, the state’s assistant superintendent of student engagement and support.

In 2015, the Washington Legislature passed a law requiring school districts to start reporting annual summaries of how many times staff restrained or isolated students, the number of injuries to students and staff and the types of restraint or isolation used.

Mueller said school districts struggled with the initial reporting but have since gotten better. He couldn’t explain why 40% of school districts still reported zero incidents in the state report.

Next school year, districts must connect incidents of restraint and isolation with individual student data, which Mueller suggested may improve accuracy. The state also will be able to examine any disproportionate use of restraint and isolation for specific student groups, including by race and ethnicity.

“This will give us the opportunity to decide to do some deeper dives,” Mueller said. “Our goal is really to improve practice” in school districts.

Earlier this year, lawmakers provided $120,000 in their 2019-21 state budget for Mueller’s office to help schools reduce the use of restraint and isolation.

In Edmonds, a central team of behavior analysts monitors the school district’s own data and provides more support in schools and classrooms where they spot a trend in the use of restraint or isolation. The school district also trains about 400 staff every year on techniques to de-escalate situations and calm students, but Garberich noted new hires and substitutes can drive the numbers in the wrong direction.

Last school year, Edmonds schools reported 1,475 incidents of restraint or isolation.

“It takes time,” he said. “I pulled the data for this year, and so far, we’ve probably cut that number in half.”

This story was corrected on June 26, 2019. The Centralia school district reported 120 incidents of student seclusion and restraint in the 2015-16 school year, not 3,702 incidents as stated in an earlier version of this story. The incorrect number was provided by the federal Civil Rights Data Collection.