Pa. School Controls Classrooms Without Harsh Restraints

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The bill, along with the one proposed in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, is being vigorously opposed by education lobbyists who believe restraint and seclusion rooms are essential tools for schools serving students with disabilities.

"[The students are] emotionally disturbed, they have behavioral issues and they act out," said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "When they do act out, sometimes they become a danger to themselves or a danger to others. Are you going to totally remove the tool that can effectively deal with youngsters that act out?"

While it's not completely opposed to federal legislation, Domenech said the AASA believes the current proposed federal legislation is unreasonable and would restrict schools' abilities to provide the safest and most effective learning environment for children.

"We don't want a law that will now have staff stand by and do nothing when a child is hurting themselves or others," Domenech said. "If the federal government is going to come in with rules and regulations, then they need to also come in with providing the resources to train staff so that those rules and regulations can be properly implemented."

George of the Centennial School testified in support of the legislation at a Congressional hearing recently, saying restraint and seclusion techniques aren't tools schools need to address and improve student behavior. He told the Congressional panel that other techniques are safer, preserve the learning environment and teach students effective problem-solving skills.

George said before he arrived at Centennial in 1998, the school was loud and at times violent, with students screaming and pounding on time-out room walls and teachers raising their voices. George said the year before he arrived, teachers employed restraint techniques 1064 times, typically using a "basket hold," which often involved two to three adults subduing a child.

"It was a very reactive system," recalls Dr. George. "It's in many schools today. The aim was to punish children out of their misbehavior."

George said he joined the school with the idea that children with autism and other children with special needs could learn, make good choices and be accountable for their behaviors if adults would take the time to teach them. Centennial got rid of the seclusion "time out" rooms and within six months virtually eliminated the use of physical restraints.

"If a teacher feels there is an imminent threat to their safety or to the safety of others, they can use physical restraint," George said. "That we haven't done it in a long time, I think, is a testimony to the power of the techniques we have in place."

All teachers and staff at Centennial are trained on the proper used of physical restraint. The state of Pennsylvania, where the school is located, is one of four states that bans all forms of seclusion and one of 11 where state law limits restraint to emergencies involving an immediate risk of physical harm, according to a report authored by Jessica Butler of The Autism National Committee. The report, called "How Safe is the Schoolhouse?", notes there are only 17 states with laws providing meaningful protections for all students against restraint and seclusion.

Many argue the patchwork of laws, statues and policies across the country contributes to the problem and speaks to the needs for a uniform national standard. Until such a law is agreed upon, students at schools like Centennial take solace in knowing they will not be subjected to harsh treatment for acting out in class.

"This should be a safe place, a place where children want to come to learn, to build relationships with one another and with their teachers," George said. "I can't believe that anything we are doing in schools is important enough to take a person's life."

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