'Unacceptable': Lawmakers pursue reforms around restraint and seclusion in schools

Hearst Newspapers investigation prompts calls for change at state, federal levels across country
Senator Shelley Mayer at the Legislative Office Building in Albany in 2019.
Phoebe Sheehan/Albany Times Union

Lawmakers around the country pledged to seek reforms in response to a sweeping Hearst Newspapers investigation into the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, including crafting new state legislation, pushing for federal standards and boosting training and mental health resources.

In New York, five state lawmakers, including the Senate's Education Committee chair, said they want to work on legislation aimed at preventing the misuse of restraint and seclusion in schools.

In Connecticut, a Republican candidate for governor vowed to devote more resources to the issue, if elected.

In Congress, several lawmakers who serve on committees focused on education issues called for swift passage of long-stalled legislation that would set limits on schools' use of restraint and seclusion nationwide. Federal legislators also supported enhancing mental and behavioral health resources in schools and strengthening public reporting of cases.

Hearst Newspapers' investigation found that each school day, thousands of students most often children with disabilities — are placed in physical restraints or confined in closet-like seclusion rooms at school. 

Parents don’t always know their own child subjected to these interventions, oversight is lacking and abuses and discrimination occur.

The interventions have caused thousands of injuries to students and staff each school year, state data shows. Meanwhile, 85 people, age 21 and younger, have died from restraint and seclusion incidents in schools and other settings, going back to the 1980s. Countless students have been traumatized.

There is no federal law regulating the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Instead, there is a patchwork of state laws, including several states with no laws at all.

New York

Officials vowed to take steps to address issues around the use of restraint and time out rooms in schools in New York, after Hearst Newspapers obtained school records showing some students are repeatedly restrained or are confined in time out rooms for more than hour at a time.

"This reporting has uncovered disturbing allegations," Katy Zielinkski, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul said. "Governor Hochul believes every child deserves to be safe and protected in our schools, as do our teachers and school staff. We are committed to protecting children from violence and abuse and will work with stakeholders on these issues."

A time out room at Jackson Heights Elementary School in Glens Falls.

A time out room at Jackson Heights Elementary School in Glens Falls.

Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

Hochul is in a tight election race against Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The State Senate's Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer, a Democrat from Westchester County, said the findings highlighted "very serious issues with New York's law" and she wanted to see the legislature respond "in a thoughtful and serious way."

Mayer said she was troubled by the lack of publicly available information on the use of these interventions in New York schools and she'd be "very open" to a law that required schools to report incidents to the state, which is something many other states require. Assemblyman Dave McDonough, a Republican from Long Island, said he planned to introduce a bill next legislative session to initiate state reporting of cases, among other measures.

Mayer also expressed concerns about New York schools' use of prone, or face-down, restraints, a practice federal officials say should never be used because it can restrict breathing. She said was troubled that state regulations permit physical restraints to be used to prevent property damage. 

State Sen. John Liu, a Democrat who leads the New York City Education Committee, pledged to work with Mayer on the issue.

“Physical restraint and seclusion of children is a serious undertaking and parents certainly have a right to know if their child is subject to either of these and the public in general should be privy," Liu said. "We have to look for potential legislative and other remedies.”

Democratic Sens. Pete Harckham and John Brooks said schools need more funding to ensure they're equipped to support students with disabilities and mental health challenges. Brooks said any school where there is repetitive use of restraints and time out rooms is a place where "something is wrong."

"We need to follow up on this thing as soon as possible and make sure where we have patterns in districts or facilities or with individuals, we are taking corrective actions, and if we have students who have significant issues, we are putting together a plan to get them the assistance they need," he said. "This whole thing is unacceptable.”

New York State Unified Teachers, a union that represents more than 600,000 school professionals, said the group will work with lawmakers and push for the hiring of more mental health staff, increased adoption of de-escalation and social-emotional learning strategies and effective training.

"We believe there must be appropriate staffing ratios for these essential staff members," said NYSUT spokesman Matthew Hamilton. "We want to ensure there is effective training for all staff so that they can best de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, including when they must make a split-second decision about how best to prevent a student from harming themselves or others, or remove that student from the classroom."

Timothy A. Clune, Executive Director of Disability Rights New York, called the use of restraint and seclusion in schools "archaic" and "punitive" and said "safer more therapeutic methods must be used."

“There is virtually no accountability right now, and that needs to change," he said. 

Connecticut

If elected governor, Republican businessman Bob Stefanowski said he would address the "alarmingly frequent" use of restraint and seclusion in schools by investing state funds in "safety training" for special education staff.

"Parents of children with disabilities should not have to worry that their child is going to be physically harmed by staff at school," Stefanowski said in a tweet.

Republican candidate for governor Bob Stefanowski speaks after receiving his party's endorsement at the State Republican Convention in May.

Republican candidate for governor Bob Stefanowski speaks after receiving his party's endorsement at the State Republican Convention in May.

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.

Connecticut's legislature has taken some steps to limit circumstances when restraint and seclusion can be used in schools in recent years. State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, a Republican from Waterford, who serves as a ranking member on the state's Education Committee, said these interventions were an ongoing concern of lawmakers.

"The education committee will monitor and take a look at this ... The legislature is very focused on making sure these practices — restraint and seclusion — aren't used except in emergencies," McCarty said. "I don't think you'll find anyone who thinks it's a good practice, especially in light of the pandemic and all of the mental health issues."

State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, chair of the House Education Committee, said he plans to work with other lawmakers "to see if more needs to be done."

"Parents should always be aware of what goes on in their child/children's schools and what is in place to ensure their safety," Sanchez said.

State Sen. Doug McCrory, a Hartford Democrat who leads that chamber's Education committee, said the body will "diligently look into concerns raised by families and educators."

Michael Gilberg, an attorney and special education advocate with Asperger's Syndrome who works in New York and Connecticut, said he was restrained and secluded in school as a child and these cases come up in his practice, too. He said he'd like to see states mandate better training, especially for paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities, and set up independent oversight committees to review the incidents schools report to states.

Gilberg added that special education programs need to be fully funded, and restraint and seclusion incidents may arise if a student is not being educated in the proper school setting to meet their needs.

Texas

A longtime member and current chair of the Texas House Public Education Committee, state Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr., a Democrat from Houston, said issues around restraint and seclusion in schools need "a legislative fix." He said he'd likely propose measures for more training for educators and expressed interest in establishing a system to collect complaints involving abuse of special education students.

"Many times students need to be restrained because their conduct represents a danger to themselves or other people," Dutton said. "It can be reasonable. But it's not something we should do as a matter of course, and it should be done in a way that doesn't end up with a solution that's worse than the problem ... The safest place on the planet for a child ought to be at school."

Dutton said he also planned to ask for an update on the status of an ongoing investigation by the Texas Education Agency into the death of a student with autism, Xavier Hernandez, after he was restrained at a public school in Fort Worth. Hearst Newspapers reported the technique staff used, a prone restraint, had been banned by Texas lawmakers two years prior.

Representative Harold Dutton, Jr. speaks at an event in Houston in 2016.

Representative Harold Dutton, Jr. speaks at an event in Houston in 2016.

Wilf Thorne/For The Chronicle

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and his challenger, Democrat Beto O'Rourke, did not respond to requests for comment.

Congress

For more than a decade, advocates have been pushing for Congress to set federal restrictions on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. A bill passed the House of Representatives in 2010, but subsequent efforts have not made it as far.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.,  a co-sponsor of the current federal bill, said she'd like to see "a floor and committee vote on this critical legislation as soon as possible."

The Keeping All Students Safe Act would ban seclusion, the use of mechanical restraints like handcuffs or chairs with straps, chemical restraints such as medications for behavioral control and “physical restraints that restrict breathing or are life threatening” in schools and Head Start programs that receive federal funding. The bill proposes limiting physical restraints to situations where there is “an imminent danger of serious physical injury to the student or other individual.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks at Onondaga Community College last month in Syracuse, N.Y.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks at Onondaga Community College last month in Syracuse, N.Y.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Backed entirely by Democrats, the future of this bill, like many others, could hinge on the outcome of the Nov. 8 midterm elections and whether Democrats retain their narrow majority.

“I hope we can move it before the end of the year," said U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. "We’d definitely move it, from my perspective, should we keep the majority.”

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a member of House Republican leadership, outlined a different approach with Republicans in charge of the House.

“Parents are the primary stakeholders in their child’s education, and they absolutely have a right to know what is happening in their child’s school," Stefanik said. "In the majority, House Republicans will pass our Parents’ Bill of Rights to ensure their right to what exactly is going on their child’s classroom.”

The bill as currently written does not appear to specifically address restraint and seclusion but articulates a variety of information schools would be mandated to publicly report or disclose to parents.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, advocated for passage of bipartisan legislation that would help schools establish and use behavioral intervention teams.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., called for more funding and support for schools to address mental health challenges in school, along with passage of the Keeping All Students Safe Act. They said enhanced federal oversight of the practices was needed. Bonamici called the findings of Hearst Newspapers' investigation "deeply disturbing."

Blumenthal said: "The very real and dangerous impacts these issues have on children demands urgent action."

When Schools Use Force

A yearlong investigation by Hearst Newspapers examines the controversial use of restraint and seclusion in schools nationwide.

About this series

A yearlong national investigation by Hearst Newspapers provides the most comprehensive look to-date at how often restraint and seclusion are used in America's schools - and how often children are harmed or die as a result. This series uncovers and highlights systemic abuses and problems, from discriminatory practices to major gaps in oversight. Journalists scrutinized years of patchy federal data on restraint and seclusion, conducted an unprecedented effort to gather records from all 50 state education agencies and obtained tens of thousands of pages of school district documents. Reporters scoured news articles, court records, government reports and other sources, studied laws in all 50 states, spoke to researchers and policy makers and interviewed more than 70 parents, students, teachers and school administrators.