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Educators Decry Rules They Say Put Teachers in Harm's Way
11/26/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

New rules that went into effect this year about if, when, and how a teacher can restrain a disruptive student are placing educators in dangerous situations, according to the Maine Education Association. It said restraint rules are vague to the point that many teachers have been directed never to touch a student, even if that student kicks, bites, or pushes them. And that in addition to putting teachers in bad situations, the new rules are also impacting other students' education.

Most people agree, teachers, administrators, and parents, that the longstanding Maine school policy on teacher restraint needed an update. One strong proponent of the change is Falmouth parent Deb Davis. She said she was shocked when her autistic son entered Kindergarten a few years ago and he was restrained when he didn't want to come in from recess and became aggressive. She was even more upset when he was restrained a second time.

"In this case it was a prone restraint position," Davis said. "I believe he was acting aggressive, and a prone restraint position is one of the most dangerous positions because it can block the airways."

Davis said part of the problem were the rules at the time, which allowed so-called "therapeutic" restraint to prevent students from injuring themselves or others. Davis said the term "therapeutic" was a misnomer and created confusion, because restraints were only intended for emergency situations.

"It just felt like it needed work," she said. "And I was so surprised too at the lackadaisical - at the time, because I can't said that about my school now- but back then, I kind of felt the school wasn't taking the rule seriously enough."

Davis wasn't alone in her concerns. In the midst of all this, there was proposed state legislation to change restraint rules, so the Department of Education formed a stakeholder group to update them. There were advocates and parents, like Davis, as well as teachers and administrators. They spent over a year researching and drafting a new rule that went into effect in July. It limits physical restraint only TO emergencies when a student's behavior presents imminent risk of injury or harm to themselves or others.

" It's incredible. I've had comments from volunteers in our schools who can't believe the change in climate in schools this year and what they're seeing happen," said RSU 9 Superintendent Michael Cormier.

Cormier is also the past president of the Maine School Management Association. Cormier is not talking about a positive change in climate. He said the new rule has effectively tied his teacher's hands when it comes to dealing with students who ARE destructive but not necessarily causing an "emergency" situation. He talks about the time a sixth grader caused a thousand dollars worth of damage tearing down blinds in the cafeteria. Or the various times teachers have evacuated their classes because a single student is out of control.

"I think the thing that is going to begin to be documented for the state is the loss of instructional time for children who are not being a problem in a classroom caused by a few children being disruptive," Cormier said.

"It really comes down to teachers need to be able to have the respect of all the kids in the classroom," said Maine Education Association president Lois Kilby-Chesley.

She said the association has been hearing similar stories from around the state, even stories of teachers being scratched, bitten, and thrown. So Last week, the MEA requested a meeting with education commissioner Stephen Bowen to talk about modifying the restraint rules and make sure teachers get properly trained on how to handle out-of-control students. Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the MEA was part of the stakeholder group that developed the new rule, and while the department of education is open to feedback.

"What we don't want to do is precipitously jump into a solution when stakeholders have put quite a bit of time coming up with a solution that presumably everyone had agreed to," said David Connerty-Marin.

Connerty-Marin said the Department of Education isn't opposed to legislative change. And at least one lawmaker said changing the restraining rule will be a priority for him this year. State Senator Tom Saviello (R-Wilton) said he wants to clarify the definition of restraint.

"What can be allowed, and what can't be allowed? I think we've swung the pendulum way too far," Saviello said.

Falmouth parent Deb Davis, who helped create the new rule, said after working with her son's school to develop a behavior plan, the experience for everyone has been much better. She thinks the new restraining rules should stand, and that more training would likely go a long way towards teachers feeling comfortable and capable of preventing dangerous and disruptive situations to arise in the first place.


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