Our Views: School districts wise to re-evaluate use of restraint, seclusion

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A disturbing incident between a Milton School District principal and student is shining a spotlight on use of physical force and padded seclusion rooms.

If that prompts Milton and other districts to re-evaluate how often they use such tactics and double down on training, that's good.

Jeanne Smith went on paid leave for the rest of the school year—with plans to retire at year's end—after Janesville police investigated the Feb. 18 incident at Milton's Harmony Elementary School. Reports indicate she stepped on an autistic boy's ankles and knee and shouted at him, supposedly to “peak” his tantrum, in a seclusion room. Police say they rarely get called after school altercations. Advocates for those with disabilities say criminal abuse charges are rare, as well.

Maybe Smith's paid leave is reasonable. It's good that she's gone. As of Monday's story on the issue by Gazette reporter Neil Johnson, the district hadn't responded to a Gazette open-records request seeking details of any district investigation and Smith's leave request.

Speaking of open records, credit a new state law and Disability Rights Wisconsin for exposing how often schools resort to physical restraints. The law passed in 2012 requires districts to report numbers to school boards. The nonprofit advocacy group filed requests to see 2012-13 reports from all districts.

The numbers are revealing. Harmony School restrained one student 27 times, while the Milton district used physical force or seclusion 85 times. Some medium-sized districts reported 3,000 incidents.

Unfortunately, 2012-13 being the first year of reports, advocates and school boards have nothing to compare them to. Wide ranges in numbers might stem from variations in details and reporting methods. Sally Flaschberger of Disability Rights Wisconsin says 100 districts reported zero restraints. She's right to suggest that's hard to believe.

In addition, Flaschberger told Johnson that the Milton and Janesville districts failed to follow the law in their reports. Milton lumped seclusion and restraint reports, while Janesville didn't break down incidents by school. Parents and the rest of the community should expect better future reports.

It's good to learn that the reports are leading some districts to change policies and strive to reduce restraint and seclusion numbers. Milton hopes to do so, as well.

Milton will train staff to “de-escalate” outbursts and use more positive techniques to modify behavior. Special Education Director Susan Probst wants more detailed reports. She and Superintendent Tim Schigur say they started focusing on the issue even before the Feb. 18 incident and want to offer refresher training for staffers throughout the year. As she gets reports, Probst says she can meet with principals, other staffers and parents to better plan for each student's needs and reduce rather than react to outbursts. All are reasonable steps.

Keep in mind that restraint and seclusion can ensure the safety of staff, other students and the troubled child. Also realize that each incident drains educational focus from classrooms until the child is removed. Finally, critics who complain public schools don't operate as cost effectively as private schools ignore that the latter aren't likely to enroll or retain troubled students or those with disabilities and behavior problems.

Absent expulsions, public schools must do their best to educate all kids. Given that, Flaschberger makes a good case for changing state law to require the state Department of Public Instruction to at least get annual district reports so it could investigate trends such as excessive use of seclusion. When the Legislature goes back to work next year, that's an idea worth considering.

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