House Democrats Call for a Ban on Restraints and Seclusion in Schools

According to data from the US Department of Education, students with disabilities and Black students are disproportionately subjected to restraints and seclusion in schools.

According to data from the US Department of Education, students with disabilities and Black students are disproportionately subjected to restraints and seclusion in schools. (Shutterstock)

By Sarah Amy Harvard

November 23, 2020

Data from the US Department of Education, reveals that students with disabilities and Black students are disproportionately affected by the practices.

House Democrats introduced a bill last week that would ban schools nationwide from using physical restraints and seclusion practices on students. Both have been shown to have a disproportionate effect on Black students and the disabled, according to reports from ProPublica and data from the US Department of Education. 

The Keeping All Students Safe Act would make it illegal for schools receiving federal funds to use restraints that could restrict students’ ability to breathe. While the proposed bill doesn’t ban restraints outright, it prohibits them from being used when a student is laying on the floor. It also restricts them to situations in which physical harm is imminent and removes restraints as a recommended intervention for students with disabilities. 

The bill also calls for a ban on seclusion, where students are confined to rooms or spaces alone, since such practices can lead to trauma and harm for students dealing with or experiencing a crisis. In some cases, students have died from the use of physical restraints and seclusion practices, and others have been injured.

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Congressional Democrats introduced the legislation this year after a late-2019 investigative report by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica that discovered seclusion to be a common practice among Illinois public schools despite violating state laws. The report also documented incidents of school faculty and staff physically restraining children out of frustration or as a method of punishment in non-emergency situations. 

While federal tracking of this issue is notoriously problematic, ProPublica also revealed that federal data for the 2017-2018 academic year showed that these weren’t uncommon across the United States. Over 100,000 students had restraints or seclusion practices used against them in that year. 

Perhaps more troubling, data from the US Department of Education for the same academic year, found alarming trends among which students are being affected most. Nearly 80% of students who were physically restrained or placed in seclusion had a disability. And despite making up 18% of classrooms across the United States in the 2017-18 academic year, 26% of documented cases of restraint or seclusion involved Black students.

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This is the second time that legislation banning certain restraints and seclusion has made its way to Congress. In 2011, a version of the same bill passed in the House, but did not reach the Senate floor. Republicans have opposed the bill in the past, arguing that states are better equipped and informed to address the needs of students and schools. 

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who is a co-sponsor of the current bill, disagrees with the notion that states can monitor themselves.

“A lot of the states do a terrible job of that,” Beyer told ProPublica. “It’s been such a huge problem. It demands national standards.” 

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Annie Acosta, director of fiscal and family support policy for The Arc—an organization advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities—also sees federal legislation as the only means for uniform approaches across the country. 

“A federal ban is needed to ensure that all students are protected, not just those who live in states that have some degree of protection,” Acosta told ProPublica. “This is a civil rights issue that should not have any geographic boundaries.”

“No parent should have to send their child to school knowing that his or her child could be pinned down or locked in a closet by school staff,” Acosta added


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