A student does not learn reading, writing, math or science when locked in a room alone at school or while physically held down by adults. If isolation and restraint teach a troubled child anything, it is to feel different, devalued and fearful.
In 2015, the Legislature recognized that restraint and isolation have no educational or therapeutic value and can be harmful to students and school personnel. House Bill 1240 outlawed the widespread practice of restraining and isolating children with disabilities as an “aversive” teaching strategy and made it illegal for schools to physically restrain or seclude any student except when necessary to prevent imminent serious harm.
Despite the new law, Washington public schools are still restraining and isolating thousands of students far too often, highlighting the need for positive, science-based intervention to manage distressed behavior. In 2017, 4,309 students were physically restrained a total of 19,162 times, while 2,411 students were placed in isolation a total of 14,106 times, according to statistics published by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The good news is that OSPI wants to do something about excessive reliance on these tactics, which are supposed to be a last resort.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal is asking the Legislature for long-overdue funding to reduce the use of restraint and isolation through monitoring and training.
But the request for a modest $60,000 a year, while embraced by the House, is missing from the Senate budget. Senators need to understand that restraint and isolation are still widely used when there is no legitimate emergency, and that both students and educators are harmed by it.
In fact, physical restraint was associated with 1,694 injuries to school staff members in 2017, the OSPI statistics show. Students also are hurt physically and emotionally by isolation and restraint. Some come home with bruises. Some are afraid to return to school. Class time is lost forever.
As the Obama administration warned in a 2012 report, restraint and isolation can have tragic consequences — including death — and “every effort should be made to structure environments and provide supports so that restraint and seclusion are unnecessary.” Some Washington schools are still using prone restraint, a method associated with deaths in other states.
Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities bear the brunt of the problem. To give some extreme examples, Auburn’s Olympic Middle School reported restraining one student 62 times and Spokane’s Garfield Elementary School reported isolating one student 57 times in 2017, according to OSPI statistics.
The 49th Street Academy in Vancouver reported 463 incidents of physical restraint involving 18 students in 2017, the highest in the state. Dozens of schools in Seattle, Kent, Edmonds, Issaquah, Lake Stevens, Lake Washington, Spokane and other districts had more than 100 restraint incidents that year. Isolation is nearly as common as restraint.
In January, the U.S. Department of Education announced a national initiative to reduce restraint and isolation of students with disabilities. OSPI also recognizes the problem but needs help solving it.
Washington’s Legislature must pass the necessary funding for training this year before more students and educators are hurt.