A report released this fall by the Madison Metropolitan School District said nearly nine percent of students with disabilities were restrained or secluded by staff during the last school year.
The report showed that 334 of the 3,804 students with disabilities, or 8.8 percent, experienced restraint and/or seclusion during the 2016-2017 school year. That number is up from 5.6 percent in the 2015-2016 school year.
The number was disproportionately high at Landmark Elementary Alternative Program (LEAP) West, a program at Olson Elementary School for students with emotional-behavioral disabilities. LEAP West reported 737 incidents of restraint and/or seclusion among 10 students last school year.
MMSD’s report shows restraint and seclusion practices vary widely among schools, with some schools reporting less than five incidents and others reporting hundreds during the last school year. While some were troubled by the numbers, a national expert said MMSD’s training is in line with best practices around the country.
State law defines physical restraint as “a restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a pupil to freely move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head,” and seclusion as “the involuntary confinement of a pupil, apart from other pupils, in a room or area from which the pupil is physically prevented from leaving.”
Wisconsin prohibits the use of mechanical restraints, or equipment meant to immobilize students.
Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said in an emailed statement to the Cap Times that MMSD is committed to “inclusive education” and aims to decrease the use of restraint and seclusion in the district.
“When it comes to restraint and seclusion, my priority is to minimize its use to only when it is absolutely necessary to maintain safety,” Cheatham said.
Overall, 529 students, about 2 percent, were restrained and/or secluded in the 2016-2017 school year in 3,158 incidents across the district.
Restraint and seclusion occurrences were also high at Schenk Elementary School, with 32 students (12 with disabilities and 20 without) experiencing 288 occurrences of restraint and/or seclusion last year.
The highest number of incidents occurred in elementary schools, with 2,975 reports of restraint and/or seclusion among 405 students. Elementary schools account for over 94 percent of restraint and/or seclusion incidents.
Middle schools reported 99 occurrences of restraint and/or seclusion among 51 students. High schools reported 84 incidents among 73 students.
Although the restraint and seclusion report makes the distinction between students who have a disability and those who do not, it does not separate the data by race. The Cap Times has requested a more detailed report from MMSD.
Madison School Board vice president Anna Moffit said she is “deeply troubled” by the restraint and seclusion numbers, particularly in the alternative programs.
“Students of color, many of whom have already experienced significant trauma, are the primary recipients of these unjust methods,” Moffit said. “The use of exclusionary practices within our district, which includes physical force against our youngest, will only exacerbate the trauma of our most marginalized students. As a district, we must do better.”
Wisconsin districts are required to report to their school boards how often students are restrained and secluded each year.
In 2014, ProPublica found that underreporting of restraint and seclusion is common. Its research concluded that one-third of school districts did not report any use of restraint and/or seclusion in the 2011-2012 school year. ProPublica's analysis said that incidents of restraint and/or seclusion were used 267,000 times in the 2011-2012 school year, with MMSD accounting for 765 of those incidents.
MMSD’s restraint and seclusion report said the district had reduced incidents across the district by almost 11 percent since the 2015-2016 school year. The 2016-2017 school year marks the first time MMSD saw an overall reduction in the trend since 2012.
“We are pleased to see a decrease in our numbers, and will continue to work with staff, provide training and ensure those numbers keep going down,” Cheatham said.
While cases were down overall, the number of times students were restrained in elementary schools increased by 50 cases, up to 1,502 incidents from 1,452 in the 2015-2016 school year.
Madison School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen said in a statement emailed to the Cap Times that “the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools should only be used as a last resort… this is why the Behavior Education Plan needs to be reworked with a focus on positive interventions instead of punishment.”
MMSD implemented its Behavior Education Plan in 2014. The BEP aimed to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in favor of restorative approaches to school discipline by helping students understand behavioral expectations and correct their actions.
In August, MMSD released the results of an internal evaluation that showed the BEP was not meeting the district’s expectations. Students of color and students with disabilities are still overrepresented in school discipline data and out-of-school suspensions were on the rise in the latter part of the 2016-2017 school year.
The restraint and seclusion report said that MMSD is taking steps to “ensure appropriate use of restraint and seclusion.” All staff who use restraint and seclusion are required to complete a two-day crisis management intervention training meant to show them how to support students who are experiencing an emotional or behavioral escalation, and to prevent escalations from occurring.
John Harper, director of student services for MMSD, said the district provides follow-up CMI training and consultations for schools that have high occurrences of restraint and seclusion. MMSD uses an electronic data system to report and track such incidents.
Reece Peterson, emeritus professor of special education at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln whose research focuses on restraint and seclusion, said MMSD’s documentation and training around restraint and seclusion are in line with best practices across the country. However, school districts should be vigilant about staff using seclusion to discipline students, versus to de-escalate a dangerous situation.
“Most larger districts have policies, but it boils down to whether the policy is known to the staff, training is provided and the staff continues to abide by those policies,” he said.
“The issue is that sometimes… these procedures are used as disciplinary actions or punishment to the kids. That is seen, on a pretty widespread basis, as inappropriate use of these procedures.”
This year, the U.S. Department of Education required each state to submit a plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the national education law.
Wisconsin’s plan detailed how it responds to “aversive behavioral interventions,” including restraint and seclusion. The plan said the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction supports districts by restricting the use of restraint and seclusion to situations where students are a physical threat to themselves or others. State law also mandates that schools report incidents to parents. DPI also provides professional development for schools to use data to monitor and reduce the practice.
Madison School Board policy says it “does not condone” the use of restraint and seclusion and its policy prohibits “corporal punishment and unreasonable use of physical force.”
However, the board recognizes that “it may be necessary for school personnel to use reasonable and appropriate restraint and/or seclusion when a student’s behavior presents a clear, present, and imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or others and it is the least restrictive intervention feasible.”
The Madison School Board policy also outlines procedures for employees practicing restraint and seclusion that mirror the state statute.
Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Ties and the Wisconsin Family Assistance Center for Education,Training and Support collaborated over the last decade to encourage lawmakers to enact restraint and seclusion policies for students in schools and group homes throughout the state.
The coalition’s 2016 report compiled the number of restraint and seclusion incidents in Wisconsin school districts and included testimony from families who have experienced the practice.
Joanne Juhnke, policy director at Wisconsin Family Ties, said restraint and seclusion has the potential to create conflict between teachers and students.
“In addition to the concerns for physical harm and the emotional and relationship damage it does between the adult and the child, there is also the question of, ‘What are we teaching our kids when we use physical force to solve a problem?’”