Feds Offer Guidelines on the Use of Restraints and Seclusion


Nearly three years after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan first sent states letters asking them to review policies and guidelines on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, the Education Department has issued its own nonbinding guidance on the practices.

Restraint and seclusion are intended to be used in emergency situations, when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others. But several reports, including one by the U.S. Government Accountability Office have found that the practices are being used inappropriately and incorrectly, leading to injuries, or even the deaths, of students.

“There is a difference between a brief time out in the corner of a classroom to help a child calm down and locking a child in an isolated room for hours. This really comes down to common sense,” Duncan said in a statement.

The Education Department said its long-awaited 15 principles about restraints and seclusion should be used as the foundation of policies and procedures created by states and districts, but it isn’t binding or required. The principles were a collaborative effort between the Department and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“These principles stress that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and seclusion and that any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse,” Duncan wrote in a letter at the beginning of the 40-page document. “The principles make clear that restraint or seclusion should never be used except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others, and restraint and seclusion should be avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff.”

Among the principles:

  • Preventing the need for restraining or isolating students should be a priority.
  • Mechanical restraints should never be used to restrict a student’s movement, and schools shouldn’t use drugs or medication to control a student’s behavior unless these have been prescribed by a doctor or other health professional.
  • Students shouldn’t be physically held down or restrained except when they are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or someone else.
  • Policies restricting restraint and seclusion of students should apply to all students, not only kids with disabilities.
  • Isolating or restraining students should never be used as a form of punishment or discipline, coercion, retaliation, or as a convenience.
  • Restraining or seclusion of a child should not involve restricting his or her breathing or anything else that harms the student.
  • Multiple uses of restraint or seclusion of the same student should trigger a review and if necessary, a revision of the strategies in place to address dangerous behavior; and,
  • Teachers and other staff should be trained regularly about appropriate use of effective alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, and safe use of restraint and isolation.

The Education Department also suggests informing parents about policies on restraint and seclusion at their children’s schools, when the practices are used, and all incidents should be documented.

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