It’s a challenge to strike the right balance. When a special-needs student is threatening or behaving violently, how can school staff best protect the safety of that child, other kids and adults?
That question is at the heart of proposed Minnesota legislation that would delay a ban on one type of restraint for another two years. Under laws adopted two years ago, the use of prone restraint to control special ed students was scheduled to end this summer.
But a Minnesota Department of Education study determined that special education staff needed more time, training and support to eliminate the restraint method completely. That’s a reasonable request and one supported by many state special education professionals and mental health advocates who work with physically and mentally challenged kids.
According to a recent Star Tribune story by Jeffrey Meitrodt, state records show that severe forms of discipline such as prone restraint and solitary confinement were used nearly 22,000 times on more than 2,500 special education students last year. Many of those cases — 16,604 — involved some type of physical hold. And of that number, prone restraint was used in 1,756 cases involving 256 students. Some parents believe physical holds are dangerous and overused.
Among several types of holds, prone restraint is the most problematic. Sometimes used on children with severe mental health disabilities, it involves grabbing students’ hands and feet while they are face down on the floor.
There have been troubling cases. One 10-year-old autistic boy was bruised after being pinned to the floor and held for nearly an hour by three staff members. Another autistic student who was disruptive was placed in a hold that left him struggling to breathe.
Yet it is equally troubling to read about the injuries sustained by staff members who have been punched, kicked and bitten by disabled students.
The multiple head injuries suffered by one metro-area teacher’s aide forced her to retire. And at one intermediate district school with a high concentration of special-needs kids, at least 58 staff members have been kicked or punched in the head by a student in the past five years. During the same time, nearly 100 staffers were bitten.
Use of prone restraint on unruly students is banned in 20 other states, and in some cases that action was taken after students who had been placed in holds were seriously injured or died. And in 2009, the federal Department of Education began urging states to overhaul their restraint and seclusion policies.
Minnesota lawmakers previously tightened state rules to prohibit prone restraint except as a last resort. A full ban would have gone into effect in August, but the proposed extension until 2015 would give educators more time to develop other methods to control kids.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who worked with disabled students early in her career, says she also wants to see prone restraint eliminated. Yet based on her own experience and after listening to special education teachers around the state, she recommends extending the timeline.
Cassellius points out that finding the right mix of strategies for individual students is challenging, and what works to control a child one day might not work the next. She said her department is working with representatives from state health and human services offices to better serve disabled kids.
Coordinating with other agencies and learning lessons from schools that already have stopped using the hold will move the state in the right direction. Then, in 24 months, Minnesota should join other states that have eliminated the use of prone restraint altogether.