School desk

Chairs up on desks in a school classroom when the day is done.

Wisconsin school employees too often resort to isolation or force when trying to control students with challenging behaviors, three state advocacy groups charged Tuesday.

State school districts used seclusion rooms and physical restraint 20,131 times involving 3,585 students during the 2013-14 school year, according to research compiled by Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Ties and Wisconsin FACETS.

All three groups advocate for students with special needs. These pupils bear the brunt of the practices — 80 percent of the total incidents involved students with disabilities.

“In addition to the risk for causing physical and emotional harm, seclusion and restraint are neither therapeutic nor effective in improving behavior,” said Sally Flaschberger of Disability Rights Wisconsin, who spoke during the report’s release at the state Capitol.

According to state law, physical restraint is defined as immobilizing or reducing the ability of a student to freely move his or her torso, arms, legs or head. Seclusion refers to involuntarily confining a pupil in a room, away from other students, and physically preventing him or her from leaving.

Both practices are allowed by state law, but the pupil’s behavior must present “a clear, present and imminent risk” to the physical safety of the pupil or others, and the technique used must be “the least restrictive intervention feasible.” Advocates say the techniques are being used too often for reasons that do not meet the legal standard and that actually escalate the situations.

The advocacy groups released data by district, but with several caveats. Forty of 450 school districts refused to provide their data, and there was considerable confusion among school personnel over what constituted restraint and seclusion. So some districts probably over-reported their numbers and others under-reported, Flaschberger said.

She pointed to Milwaukee as a school district she thinks under-reports. It enrolls around 78,000 students, yet reported only 213 incidents of restraint and no instances of seclusion.

The Madison School District, with about 27,100 4K-12 students, reported 975 incidents of restraint and 1,387 instances of seclusion. Amy Puccio, one of three parents who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, told of her son being carried or dragged as he struggled not to be taken to a seclusion room at a Madison elementary school earlier this school year.

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She declined to name the school but said her 8-year-old boy, who has been diagnosed with autism and other disorders, was restrained 20 times and secluded 27 times in less than a month. She faulted the school’s staff for not working with her to figure out her son’s triggers. But she praised the district’s team of behavior specialists for stepping in to help.

Her son is now at a different school in the district, Kennedy Elementary, which she said “gets” him. “They’re absolutely wonderful,” she said. “We’re rebuilding trust.”

Anna Moffit, a parent peer specialist for Wisconsin Family Ties and the parent of a son with autism, said she thinks “Madison, like other districts, overuses restraint and seclusion, which has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and African-American students.”

Moffit is a member of the Madison School Board but said she was speaking as a parent.

John Harper, executive director of student services for the Madison School District, said the district is “very cautious and careful” in using restraint and seclusion techniques and that staff members are well-trained to understand the parameters of the law.

“There are moments and times when students may present temporary situations where there is the possibility of injuring themselves and others,” he said. “We feel it is our responsibility in those situations to ensure the safety of our students and staff.”

Harper said restraining or secluding a student for a few minutes often can lead to the pupil quickly returning to the classroom. This is preferable, he said, to letting the situation escalate, which can lead to a suspension or expulsion.

The advocacy groups made several recommendations, including making parent notification requirements stricter and requiring districts to report restraint and seclusion data to the state.

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