Thousands of Washington students restrained, isolated in public schools

New data from Washington school districts show that, from January through June, thousands of students were involved in incidents that resulted in school employees using restraints or isolation to get student behavior under control.

The data, released last week by the state superintendent’s office for the first time under a 2015 law, also revealed that the procedures resulted in more than 300 injuries to students and nearly 1,000 injuries to school staff members. The data do not specify the extent of the injuries or whether they required medical treatment.

Advocates for special needs students who helped get Washington’s 2015 law adopted call the recent state numbers “shockingly high” in a news release. The new data include all students, special needs and general education students.

Arzu Forough, president and CEO of Washington Autism Alliance and Advocacy, said the statewide data illustrate a pressing need for more training for school employees. That training should encourage the use of research-based positive behavior interventions in place of physical force, she said.

“Forceful restraints are dangerous not just to the students, but to the people who are doing it,” she said.

Some school districts said the numbers might be skewed because of confusion over what to report. Not all districts reported data.

“We started data collection the first day back from winter break,” said Jennifer Traufler, assistant superintendent of student support services for Tacoma Public Schools. “We knew we would be reporting, but we weren’t notified until December of last year what the reporting was going to be.”

The state defines restraint as “physical intervention or force used to control a student, including the use of a restraint device to restrict a student’s freedom of movement.” It excludes medically prescribed orthopedic devices or safety devices that correctly position a child or allow for safe transportation.

Districts also reported on the types of restraints used. Most said they used a type of person-to-person hold developed by one of several national companies that train educators to deal with student behaviors. A few reported the use of handcuffs by law enforcement officers, and several listed the use of weighted blankets, a method that relies on small weights sewn into a blanket that is said to help calm students who respond to sensory therapy.

Isolation means leaving a student alone in a room or other enclosure from which the student may not leave. It does not include a child’s voluntary move to a quiet space for self-calming. The law requires that students who are isolated be under continuous visual observation by an adult and that an adult be within visual or auditory range of the student.

Restraint and isolation methods are a concern among groups nationwide that advocate for student safety. Positions that place students face down can be dangerous because they restrict a child’s breathing. Washington law bans the use of restraints that impair breathing. Leaving a student in a room without adults monitoring the child can lead to self-inflicted injuries. Reports from around the country have included incidents that resulted in student deaths.

Forough said that, based on what her organization hears from families, students on the autism spectrum seem to be disproportionately subjected to isolation and restraint. The state data do not specify age, gender, race or disability status of students involved in reported incidents.

“Science tells us there is no educational or therapeutic value to isolation,” said attorney Kathy George, who has worked with the autism group. “It is not a learning tool. If anything, it can be harmful and traumatic.”

Forough said it was disheartening to learn that nearly a fourth of all the state’s school districts did not comply with reporting requirements. The data were reported by 217 of the state’s 295 school districts.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said he’s pleased that there is now baseline data, but added that he hopes more districts submit data in the future. State officials also say they hope to refine the reporting system to make it clearer for school districts.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who sponsored the 2015 legislation, said he hopes to introduce new legislation that will ask for that data. He said he also wants to seek funding so districts can provide teachers and paraeducators with training to help them avoid the use of physical restraint and isolation.

“This whole policy is about identifying where those needs are,” Pollet said.

He pointed to disparities between school districts statewide, such as Spokane and Tacoma. Both districts are roughly the same size, with about 30,000 students. But Spokane reported 1,174 incidents of isolation, while Tacoma, with the state’s second highest number of incidents, reported 840. The two districts also used restraints at different rates: Spokane had the highest with 810 while Tacoma was fourth with 638.

Traufler said the highest numbers of Tacoma incidents were reported by elementary schools that house special programs for kids with autism or with emotional or behavioral disabilities. Those schools include Manitou, Fawcett, Lyon and Edison.

She said anecdotal evidence indicates that some schools may have overreported, while others underreported. Because the data-keeping requirement was instituted mid-year, the district had little time to explain reporting requirements to staff, she said.

There were questions from teachers: Does holding a preschooler’s hand to keep him from running away count as restraint? If a teacher clears the classroom to protect other students from a child who is threatening to harm them, is that isolation?

The district has promised more training on reporting requirements. It is also expanding training on how to de-escalate situations so that restraints and isolation can be avoided.

Tacoma and several other districts are working to reduce or eliminate the use of special isolation rooms. Traufler said Tacoma has only two such rooms left in the district. She said they are used for “very specific children with very unique needs — and with parent permission.”

Staff members need to build trust with those students so the children can learn to manage their own behavior, she said. But she said that task can be complicated when students don’t stay long enough in the classroom or in the district for trust to develop. Tacoma’s special programs include students who come from surrounding districts that are too small to offer specialized programs for high-needs kids.

“Staff want to do the right thing,” Traufler said. “We want to keep kids safe. We continue to have room to grow.”

Rita Reandeau, student services director in the Peninsula School District, said her staff members also were uncertain about what kind of incidents to report. One school recalled a case in which an elementary student with sensory processing issues became distressed during a fire drill and refused to move. Should we pick the child up, staff wanted to know? Is that a restraint?

Reandeau echoed others who spoke of the need for more staff training, especially for dealing with students who act out violently.

“It takes some specially skilled people, and it is a very expensive road to work through,” she said.

The last half of the 2015-16 school year was the first time districts were required to report to the state. But some districts began keeping internal records before then.

That’s the case in the Parkland-based Franklin Pierce School District, where internal record-keeping for incidents involving special needs students began about five years ago, district officials said.

Watching the numbers made a difference and helped bring down the rates over time, said William Rasplica, director of student support services for the district. It also prompted training for Franklin Pierce employees that emphasizes early interventions and de-escalating problems.

In his district, the form used to report incidents doubles as a notice that’s sent to parents. Washington law requires schools to inform parents whenever a school employee uses restraint or isolation to control a student’s behavior.

Orting Superintendent Marci Shepard said her district also tracked data prior to the state reporting requirement. She said the new law has prompted officials to take a new look at the numbers. Almost all of the nine students who were restrained during the reporting period and the six who were isolated are special needs kids, she said.

“We are monitoring the data every single month now,” she said. That allows teachers to intervene earlier and hopefully avoid restraints or isolation, which should be used as a last resort, Shepard said.

The Puyallup School District reported overall lower rates of such incidents. But there were also high numbers of incidents involving a single student at two Puyallup schools. At one high school, one student was restrained 41 times during the six-month period. At a junior high, one student was restrained 22 times.

Karen Mool, director of special education in Puyallup, said the degree of restraint can vary from incident to incident. Holding a student’s arm to guide the child to a location where he or she can calm down could be reported as a restraint, she said.

Mool said the goal is to avoid restraint and isolation.

“If you have a situation where safety is a concern, we have to intervene,” she said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo