Disabled Kids Get a Break: Bill May Protect Them Against Restraint in School

A bill being voted on in Congress today could change the way children, especially those with disabilities are treated at schools.

But though it was written by members of both parties, some Republicans are charging that it's unnecessary government involvement in states' matters.

The Keeping All Students Safe Act in the House would implement minimum federal safety standards for public schools similar to those that exist for hospitals and other community facilities. There is no current federal regulation on how seclusion and restraint can be used in schools, both private and public.

The bipartisan effort is led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and was prompted by a report last year that said two decades of torture-like tactics, mostly on special needs kids, went unregulated on the federal level.

Cedric Price, a 14-year-old with post traumatic stress disorder, died in 2002 after his 230-pound teacher sat on him to restrain him. His mother said the teacher sat on her son until he turned blue and couldn't breathe, and the boy's death was ruled a homicide.

According to the report, a 4-year-old autistic girl died because teachers restrained her with wooden straps in a chair described as resembling a miniature electric chair.

Congressional investigators also uncovered cases of teachers taping childrens' mouths shut, using handcuffs, denying them food and locking them in small dark spaces, the report said.

The Government Accountability Office's report, released in May, found that no federal law existed to prevent such mistreatment.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said they are hoping to change that.

"It's very important we act in a timely fashion to address this issue," Rodgers said. "This bill is really targeting a lot of children who are special needs children and it seems appropriate to me there be some kind of guidelines on the federal level that complement what's already in place."

But some Republicans who opposed the bill in the House say it encroaches on states' rights.

"I think the primary concern is that this is really premature; we are attempting to legislate a federal solution to a problem we don't fully understand," said a spokesperson for Rep. Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee who voted against the bill in the committee. "Clearly, this is a very serious issue, but the question is who will be best equipped to handle it."

Republican support for the bill in the House Education and Labor Committee was split. Five GOP members in the committee voted for the legislation, four did not vote and eight voted against it. Rodgers said she is confident that bipartisan support can be achieved in the House.

"Yes, absolutely," she said. "I think it's actually been an example where we could work in a bipartisan fashion. Chairman Miller has been very good about incorporating some of my additions to the bill."

The bill would limit physical restraint or locked seclusion only to situations where there is "imminent danger," would require staff to be trained and would completely abolish chemical restraints not part of a physician's prescription. Mechanical restraints used for specific, intended, and approved safety or therapeutic purposes are not prohibited, only the misuse of such equipment. These are merely guidelines for states, especially those that don't already have regulations in place.

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