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

"Without a federal standard, state policies and oversight vary wildly, leaving children vulnerable," Miller said. "It's a nightmare for everyone involved."

Divergent Views on Bipartisan House Education Bill

Education experts say there is a consensus in the special education community that such a bill can serve as a guide for what is appropriate behavior in an emergency situation. The bill also advocates more training for staff members and teachers.

"It should also hopefully attempt to eliminate the abuse situations that have occurred," said Reece Peterson, a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska.

Opponents argue that this issue is best left up to states, since many of them already have rules and regulations in place, rather than a federal agency that cannot develop a policy as quickly as states and school administrators.

Kline and other critics, however, have not presented an alternative proposal and say states are free to use the federal funds allotted to them to develop programs to prevent abuses. Currently, 31 states have policies to regulate seclusion and restraint and 15 others are in the process of reviewing and implementing them, but these regulations vary greatly.

Miller argues that those 31 states may have laws, but they are not comprehensive in their approach and that only a few address restraint or seclusion or both.

Opponents also cite increased litigation against schools as a cause of concern and the idea that the proposed federal regulations could also be applied to private schools, which currently do not take federal funding. That, GOP aides say, could have the unintended consequences of private schools either declining their services or rejecting students altogether.

Peterson, a proponent of the bill, argued that while this may be the first comprehensive legislation aimed at special needs children, it is not the first such comprehensive federal bill to be implemented in the education sector. For example, he pointed to No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

"It has not been shown that the states have had the chance to monitor adequately. I don't think there's much alternative other than to get common and widespread standards," he said. "This is certainly not more intrusive than other bills."

One argument that administration advocate groups are presenting is that the GAO report was not as thorough as it should have been and that legislators should wait for more sound data before proceeding further on this bill.

The American Association of School Administrators argued that the GAO's report last year was not based on "objective, carefully gathered and analyzed data."

Physical restraint and seclusion is a sensitive issue for educators of special needs children. Some say that in some cases, it is needed for the safety of the entire classroom but it has to be balanced.

"The Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education is preparing to gather more objective information this coming school year. We urge the House to await objective, uniformly reported and analyzed data from OCR before acting," AASA's executive director Dan Domenech said in a letter to House members Tuesday.

The bill's "prohibition against mechanical restraints is too broad and could prevent appropriate use of restraints in emergency situations where students must be restrained to protect themselves and others," Domenech said.

The legislation limits restraint only to situations where there is "imminent danger." Miller said more than a 100 organizations are backing the bill, including disability groups and civil rights groups.

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