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Maine's Classroom Restraint Rules Come Under Legislative Scrutiny
02/20/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine lawmakers are considering easing rules on the use of restraints and seclusion in Maine schools, just a year after restricting them. Current law says teachers can use these controversial disciplinary techniques only when there is an imminent risk of injury or harm to a student or others inside a school building. But many teachers and principals say the policy goes too far, puts them at greater risk of being assaulted and makes it easier for out-of-control students to disrupt classrooms. Jay Field reports.

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The current rules, passed into law by the Legislature last March, grew out of recommendations made by a group of stakeholders, including educators, child advocates and parents. But from the moment the school year began last fall, there were signs that the new policy wasn't working.

Here's a story about a student in the Lewiston public schools, a first grader who began to yell one day after something set him off. Bill Webster, Lewiston's superintendent, told the Legislature's Education Committee what happened next.

"He overturned his chair and made it clear that no one should get near him," Webster said. "Now, prior to this year, the teacher would have engaged him with a loving, firm hold."

The teacher would have led the child away from the other kids and helped the student calm down, before the tantrum got out of hand. But Webster says the teacher worried she'd get in trouble, that the meltdown wasn't yet putting the student, or anyone else, at risk of physical harm.

Soon, though, the tantrum got worse. The student, who goes by the pseudonym Andrew, ransacked the entire room. Webster says the teacher finally felt comfortable restraining Andrew.

"She placed Andrew in a hold. He then seemed to begin to calm down. At this point, Andrew slammed his head up and back, instantly breaking the teacher's nose. The teacher and principal agree that had Andrew been restrained early on, the situation would have de-escalated quickly," Webster said.

"How many times in a day is this interruption allowed?" asked Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union representing the state's teachers. "We are hearing that in some classrooms this happens multiple times a day."

Kilby-Chesly says teachers complain they no longer have the authority to step in, control thier classrooms and prevent the constant disruptions to learning. And even when it seems appropriate to use restraint or seclusion, teachers are telling the union they're reluctant to do so.

"Educators tell us of administrators passing information to them, stating that phyically intervening with a child will put their job at risk and may put them in a position of being sued by a parent," she said.

A bill before the Legislature, LD 243, is designed to offer more clarity by allowing the use of restraint or seclusion to prevent significant property damage, and disruption of the educational environment. Parents could also authorize school staff to use these techniques with their kids.

But supporters of the current, more restrictive law, say reversing course would be unwise. Deb Davis is a parent and member of the stakeholder group that helped draft the existing law on restraints and seclusion.

"LD 243 doesn't protect the safety and well-being of all individuals in schools because it allows more restraint and creates more risk for trauma, or risk of loss of life," Davis said.

The U.S. Department of Education has discouraged school districts across the country from using restraints and seclusion on students. Data, released last year by the department's office for civil rights, showed that in a sampling of more that 72,000 schools, restraints were used disproportionately on students with disabilities.

Supporters of the current law in Maine say the way to avoid this is to make sure that educators are adaquately trained in how to apply the new rules. Barbara Gunn runs the Southern Penobscot Regional Program, a treatment program for kids with special needs, and is a member of the stakeholder group. Gunn says the state has dropped the ball on training.

"I don't believe there has been enough training and technical assitance," she said. "There must be more, especially since training done for districts has contained innaccurate information about the Chapter 33 rules."

Gunn says lawmakers, and the Maine Department of Education, should at least be willing to provide more extensive training before they go ahead and toss out the existing law. In the interest of full disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents reporters and some other employees at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.



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