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.

"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.