Disabled students in wealthy, less-diverse districts are twice as likely as their low-income peers to be restrained or placed in isolation in school, according to new research by the University of New Hampshire.
Restraint and isolation have been used primarily on students who pose a threat to themselves or others. And few schools resort to these physical solutions: Some 95 percent of districts reported fewer than 10 instances of restraint or seclusion per 100 students with a disability in 2009-10.
But about 1 percent reported one incident for every two students that school year, and that’s a significant number considering there are more than 14,000 districts nationwide, says Douglas Gagnon, a research assistant at UNH’s Carsey Institute, which conducts policy research on vulnerable children.
Teachers in affluent districts tend to more readily remove problem students from the classroom, which may explain why there is more restraint and seclusion in wealthier districts, says Gagnon, who co-authored the 2013 study, “Variation Found in Rates of Restraint and Seclusion Among Students With a Disability.”
Affluent schools may also have more resources—such as increased staffing to restrain students and locked, seclusion rooms—to implement these practices.
There are no federal laws restricting the use of restraint and seclusion, and many states also lack specific guidelines. However, policies started to change when a 2009 government accountability report documented hundreds of cases in the past two decades where students were pinned to the floor for hours at a time, handcuffed or locked in closets. At least 20 students died as a result.
At the time, 21 states had some form of a law protecting students with disabilities from seclusion and restraint. Today, 32 states have such laws; however, they vary from state to state.
But policies in many states and districts remain vague, and often give final say to teachers and administrators, Gagnon says. Restraint and seclusion policies are often decided by the school’s resources, and the climate set by administrators—“whether or not it is looked down upon or seen as inevitable,” he says.
These practices do have proponents, such as the American Association of School Administrators, which says they are tools that can help teachers effectively deal with students who act out.
Meanwhile, research shows that rates of restraint and seclusion drop when teachers use techniques like “positive behavior support,” which calls for rewarding good behavior rather than punishing misconduct.
The Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa., which is part of the College of Education at Lehigh University and serves students with disabilities, reported that just 60 students were restrained more than 1,000 times in 1997. The following year, the school implemented positive behavior support principles and stopped restraining and secluding students.
Centennial School Director Michael George says that when teachers engage physically with students, it does not engender trust or feelings of safety and disrupts classrooms. “It tends to exacerbate the problem and add to the aggressiveness in children,” George says.
The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders recommends restraint and seclusion only when a student presents an immediate danger to themselves or others. Schools that use these techniques frequently should look to neighboring districts that do not, and think about what’s best for students, Gagnon says.
“There are a lot of possible negative consequences that come with restraint and seclusion,” he says. “I think it is compelling to note that there are a lot of schools out there not using these practices.”